The number of drug-affected babies born in Maine declined for the first time in more than a decade in 2017, but the state’s treatment community says it’s too soon to determine whether it’s an indication that progress is being made in the state’s fight against the opioid crisis.

The number of drug-affected babies dropped to 952 in 2017, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday, a day before lawmakers are to take up a bill that would make it easier for some Mainers to obtain free long-term birth control. While the DHHS data measures all babies affected by drugs and alcohol – not just opioids – the spike in drug-affected babies over the past decade has mirrored the worsening heroin crisis.

Drug-affected births had climbed from 165 in 2005 to 1,024 in 2016, the DHHS said, representing about 8 percent, or 1 in 12, of all births in the state at its peak.

Maine’s total birth number has been steady – about 12,500 per year – since 2011, but the data on total births for 2017 was not available Wednesday from DHHS, making it impossible to determine if the rate of drug-affected babies also declined.

Maine’s substance-use treatment community wasn’t quite ready to cheer the news, given that the opioid crisis in the state remains severe, and because it is difficult to draw conclusions without knowing the percentage of drug-affected births.

“I’m still seeing people battling new addictions every day, so I don’t have a sense that things are slowing down,” said Dr. Mary Dowd, who treats those with substance use disorder in an outpatient setting and also works at Milestone Recovery’s detox center in Portland. “I have noticed there’s a little bit more funding for treatment, more places for people to go to.”

Drug overdose deaths remain high in Maine, which had a record 376 in 2016 and 185 through the first six months of 2017. The Portland Press Herald highlighted the staggering number of overdose deaths in “Lost,” a 10-day series on the opioid crisis.

Babies exposed to opioids in the womb can have symptoms that include excessive crying, fever, seizures, slow weight gain and vomiting, and they are more likely to die in the weeks after being born, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Hospitals and other health care providers classify babies as drug-affected based on several criteria, including whether they are showing symptoms of drug withdrawal, have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or if there are reasons to believe that the mother was consuming drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, DHHS said.

The most recent national look at drug-affected babies appears to be a 2016 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That analysis, based on 2012 hospital birth data, shows Maine had the second-highest rate in the nation of babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome, caused primarily by exposure to opioids in the womb. Maine’s rate was 30.4 per 1,000 hospital births, second only to Vermont, which had a rate of 30.5 per 1,000 births.

Lawmakers will take up a bill Thursday that would make it easier for Mainers earning 209 percent of the federal poverty level or less – or about $25,000 per year for a single person – to obtain free long-term birth control, such as IUDs. A workshop on the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Scott Hammon, D-South Portland, will be held by the Health and Human Services Committee.

Maine also has responded to the opioid crisis by clamping down on opioid prescribing with a strict new law that took full effect in 2017. The law – the only one of its kind in the nation – restricts the dosage and length of opioid prescriptions. Research has not proven that opioids are effective in treating chronic pain, the federal CDC has said.

Preliminary data from insurers indicates that opioid prescribing declined substantially in 2017, with one insurer, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, reporting a drop of 15 percent among its members from June 2016 to June 2017.

Andrew MacLean, deputy executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, which represents doctors before the Legislature, said the association hopes the message of prescribing fewer opioids is getting through to doctors and helping to reduce the number of Mainers who start down the path of opioid addiction. A common way to fall into opioid addiction is when patients are prescribed opioids for chronic pain, and then start abusing their prescriptions, health experts have said.

“We would be disappointed if our education and awareness campaigns were not working. Physicians should consider various other viable alternatives before prescribing opioids as a last resort,” MacLean said.

Dowd, the Milestone physician, said Medicaid expansion will be a game-changer in providing treatment to people who don’t have private insurance because access to treatment is now difficult. Many who are struggling with addictions have lost their job and don’t have insurance, but Medicaid expansion and the substance abuse treatment services that come with it will insure people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty limit.

Maine voters approved Medicaid expansion at the polls in November, although Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrats in the Legislature have yet to agree on how to fund the initiative.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @joelawlorph

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