Gov. Paul LePage spoke with great passion last week about the opioid overdose crisis, now claiming on average more than one life a day in the state.

Listening to the speech, you couldn’t doubt that he really cares about the families who are being torn apart by this scourge, and that he sincerely wants to do something to end it. In recent months, he and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have made money available for medication-assisted treatment, the “gold standard” for fighting opiate addiction, with a 50-year track record of success.

The only question is, where has this leadership been for the last six years?

Starting in his first year in office, LePage and Mayhew promulgated rules that put time limits on methadone treatment, despite solid research that shows that the medicine allows many people to work and have a normal life, and that there is a high rate of relapse for people who are weaned off it.

Then LePage made national news with his stubborn opposition to the wider distribution of naloxone, the overdose antidote medication, claiming that it did not save lives, it just prolonged them.

LePage and Mayhew have repeatedly bragged about reducing the MaineCare rolls, especially by cutting coverage for non-disabled, childless adults. This has disrupted the economics of treatment providers, closing clincs and slowing expansion just when they were most needed.

The governor says that Maine can’t just “throw money at the problem” and should look to see what’s working in other states.

He won’t have to look far: Vermont has been able to slam the lid on overdose deaths using a coordinated system of treatment known as the “hub and spoke” concept that is now a national model. The state makes available residential detox beds for addicts (the hub), following with medication-assisted treatment and counselling in the community (the spokes). They have been able to finance it largely with federal funds, because instead of kicking people off Medicaid, Vermont expanded coverage for individuals earning less than $16,300 a year.

For most of his time in office, Gov. LePage has treated drug addiction as a moral failing, and offered only tough love, at times sounding insensitive to the heartbreaking loss of control that addicts experience.

Lately, his words have been more sympathetic, but he still leaves questions about whether he fully understands the problem.

In his speech to the Legislature — and again in a radio interview Thursday — the governor quoted an unnamed friend, a emergency room doctor, who LePage said told him that the opioid overdose epidemic would end only “when this generation dies.”

Those are chilling words coming from LePage, who’s not simply an observer, but an official who has the tools at his disposal to slow the death toll — if he would just be willing to use them.

There is a welcome change in Gov. LePage’s rhetoric regarding the drug crisis. If he matches his sympathetic words with swift actions, he could save lives.

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