BOSTON – Maine Gov. Paul LePage joined five other New England governors in Boston on Tuesday for a forum on opioid abuse and to discuss actions that are being taken by their administrations to address drug abuse, overdose and deaths.

All six New England governors attending the conference said fighting the social stigma associated with addiction is the key to battling the opioid crisis raging across the region, claiming thousands of lives.

The fifth annual International Conference on Opioids was held at Harvard Medical School on the same day that LePage was criticized by Maine’s Democratic Party for comments he made about the state’s opioid epidemic during a morning interview on WVOM radio in Bangor.

Speaking on the George Hale and Ric Tyler Show about the use of Narcan to revive people who have overdosed, LePage said, “I’m a believer that you work with somebody, you give a hand-up, you give it one time. I know they’ll relapse. You can count on somebody relapsing. You do it a second time, but once you get to the third time, there comes a point is when is enough, enough?”

The Maine Democratic Party issued a statement critical of the governor, saying the Republican’s remarks amounted to an assertion “that opioid addicts should be left to die at the third overdose.”

“Governor LePage speaks of people struggling with opioid addiction as though they were not our friends, family, members and neighbors,” Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in the statement. “His aversion to granting life-saving treatment to the people he was elected to represent is incomprehensible, and he is the last person, who should be representing our state at a conference on the opioid crisis.”


LePage’s representatives did not respond to requests for the governor to clarify his comment Tuesday night.

The governors pointed to a series of steps needed to fight the epidemic, from increasing education in schools about the addictive nature of opioids to limiting first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers and ratcheting up law enforcement efforts targeting heroin.

They said critical to all the approaches is removing the stigma around addiction and getting people into treatment.

“The New England governors are taking this issue very seriously, and our goal is to identify ways we can work together to fight this crippling pandemic we are all facing,” LePage said in a statement issued by his office. “We are making progress in Maine, and as far as overprescribing, doctors are cooperating, which is the first step.”

“Maine is a leader in this crisis, and by sharing information with each other we can improve many – and in some cases – save lives,” the governor said.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he became aware of the depth of the problem when he was campaigning for governor and heard stories from families about loved ones who died from overdoses.


Earlier this year Baker signed what he called the most comprehensive law in the nation to combat opioid addiction, including a seven-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers.

He said more needs to be done.

There were 1,379 unintentional, opioid-related deaths last year in Massachusetts. Without the overdose reversal drug naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, that toll could have topped 5,000, he said.

“I have no illusions about how tough this one is going to be,” Baker said.

Like his counterparts, LePage said there’s no silver bullet. He said fighting the problem requires a mix of education, working with doctors on prescribing practices, beefing up law enforcement, and encouraging treatment options.

He also pointed to drug courts where he said those addicted to opioids can choose jail or treatment.


“It’s what I call tough love, but believe me, it’s a tough, tough problem,” he said.

According to Maine Department of Health and Human Services, more than 80 million opioid pills were prescribed by doctors in 2014 to more than 350,000 patients – the equivalent of about one-third of Maine’s adult population.

LePage, in his statement, said studies show 75 percent of heroin addictions begin with an opiate prescription and those on prescription opioids are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin than those who are not.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said her state has seen more than 1,000 people die from overdoses in the past four years. She called opioid addiction “the single greatest public health crisis.”

She said the fight to remove the stigma associated with addiction is tough.

“A lot of people still see this as an issue that is relatively confined to a certain kind of people,” she said.


The governors said many who end up addicted begin by taking prescription painkillers.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin faulted the pharmaceutical industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who he said haven’t done enough.

In 2012, he said, there were 250 million prescriptions written for OxyContin – enough for a bottle for every adult in the country.

“We’re handing out OxyContin like candy,” he said.

The governors also warned about fentanyl – a synthetic opioid, 50 times more potent than heroin.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said fentanyl was a contributing factor in 188 overdose deaths in his state last year.


He said fentanyl – often combined with a purer and cheaper form of heroin – is fueling the overdose crisis.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan recalled speaking with woman who brought a small child to an Easter egg hunt at the Statehouse. She said the woman told her she was the grandmother of the child, whose mother had died a month earlier from an overdose.

“This is a daily occurrence,” Hassan said.

All the governors are Democrats except Baker and LePage.

The conference was also aimed at primary care physicians, pain specialists and others interested in the public health aspects of opioids.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this article.

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