The Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled a $1.1 billion proposal to combat the heroin crisis, including $970 million devoted to substance abuse treatment.

Maine could benefit more than other states, according to the White House, because the funding formula would be weighted in favor of states that are rural and are more affected by the crisis.

“This is a great first step,” says Peter Wohl, owner of Behavioral Health Resources in Portland. “This would help us get people who are doing deadly drugs off the streets and into a clinical setting where they can be helped.”

Although the proposal would need approval from the Republican-controlled Congress, the funding could help hundreds or even thousands of Mainers who now have difficulty finding treatment. Nationally, the program could provide funding over two years to treat about 150,000 to 200,000 addicts.

“This is a great first step. We need something to stop the bleeding. This would help us get people who are doing deadly drugs off the streets and into a clinical setting where they can be helped,” said Peter Wohl, owner of Behavioral Health Resources, a Portland substance abuse treatment center. Wohl was pleased that the Obama proposal focused primarily on funding medication-assisted treatment – including methadone and Suboxone – because research shows those methods are the most effective.

Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly Jr., who has written a 35-page booklet on the heroin crisis, said the proposal is a breakthrough because it favors science-based treatments. Connolly said it bothers him to see governments wasting money by funding abstinence-based treatment programs that don’t work well.

“Hooray! Finally we have a (proposal) that specifically states that opiate addiction treatment should be medication-based, which means evidence-based,” Connolly said.

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, told the Portland Press Herald in a phone interview that he’s encouraged by the White House’s robust response to the crisis, and that the initiative would be the first significant new federal spending on treatment. King said Maine stands to benefit from the new funding based on how the heroin crisis has seriously affected the state.

“This is a really big deal,” King said. “It’s a major new initiative and a major policy development.”

BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR PLAN

Maine has seen a surge in opioid addiction and heroin deaths, including 71 heroin overdose deaths through the first nine months of 2015. The number of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction jumped from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014.

Depending on a number of factors, including how much money is received and how it’s distributed, a rough estimate is that the proposal could end up paying for the treatment of several hundred to 2,000 or more people in Maine.

King believes there’s strong support from Republicans and Democrats for reaching a deal on Obama’s proposal.

“I have never seen as much bipartisan interest and support on an issue as this one,” King said. He and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., also have proposed a $600 million bill that would fund additional treatment, but King is pleased that Obama’s proposal devotes more funding to the problem. However, the Obama administration’s proposal would have to go through Congress and could end up looking much different than it is in its current form.

Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, said he supports the Obama administration’s efforts.

“It is encouraging that (Obama) has shown how important it is to address the alarming and growing heroin epidemic in Maine and throughout the country,” he said in a prepared statement. “This problem needs a bipartisan solution, and I am hopeful that Congress and the president can work together to act on it.”

Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

King’s colleague, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also has spoken in favor of reforms, including increasing the cap on the number of patients that a physician can treat for opioid addiction. The cap is currently set at 100.

Shannon Trainor, CEO of Crossroads, a Scarborough-based treatment center, said relaxing the cap on physicians is key.

“Any help is definitely needed and much appreciated,” Trainor said. “More money is great, but if there’s not enough physicians, there would still be a capacity problem.”

Collins supports the plan, but said it needs to be more comprehensive.

“My initial reaction is that I’m pleased the president has finally put forth a plan to deal with this epidemic,” Collins said. “There has been a real awakening to how severe this epidemic is.”

Collins said she would also like to see Obama fund additional enforcement efforts and prevention, including educating children of the dangers of heroin addiction.

“We need to have a three-pronged approach,” she said.

BIGGER PROBLEM, MORE MONEY

The money would be doled out according to a formula that factors in the scope of the crisis in each state, as opposed to being strictly based on population. The bulk of the money – $920 million – would be distributed to support medication-assisted treatment such as Suboxone and methadone. “States will receive funds based on the severity of the epidemic and on the strength of their strategy to respond to it,” a White House fact sheet said.

The exact formula has yet to be revealed, King said. Federal officials didn’t immediately respond to requests asking if a formula has been devised.

Maine would receive about $4 million for treatment if the money were distributed based solely on a per-capita basis, and is likely to receive more than that because of the severity of the state’s crisis.

Another $50 million would be devoted to “expanding access” to medication-assisted treatment to 700 providers, although the White House didn’t immediately provide details on how that money would be distributed. The remaining $120 million would be spent on researching the effectiveness of treatment strategies and boosting efforts to reduce prescription opioid drug overdoses.

In Maine, a $3.7 million compromise bill that focused on enforcement and treatment was approved by the Legislature and signed by LePage last month. Several other bills to address the heroin crisis are making their way through the Legislature.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a written statement that she’s “glad” that Obama is stepping forward with a proposal, while noting that Maine’s refusal to expand Medicaid has hampered the state’s efforts to offer treatment, especially for those who don’t have insurance.

“The state’s failure to expand Medicaid and low reimbursement rates have made it hard for health care providers to offer the kind of treatment that helps people who are addicted. If Congress approves this increased funding, it will be a chance for Maine to expand those treatment options,” Pingree said.

LePage has vetoed efforts to expand Medicaid. Two moderate Republican state senators, Thomas Saviello of Wilton and Roger Katz of Augusta, are trying again this year to expand Medicaid, and they have tied the proposal to the heroin crisis.

By expanding Medicaid, the two have pointed out, substance abuse treatment providers would be reimbursed for counseling addicts. Under the current system, many heroin addicts do not have insurance, and there’s no funding mechanism to pay for their care. The Republican senators’ plan would not be a traditional Medicaid expansion, but a compromise proposal modeled on programs in other states, such as Arkansas and New Hampshire.


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