AUGUSTA — Dozens testified at the State House on Wednesday supporting a bill that would establish a pilot program to help 50 homeless people struggling with opioid addiction.

The bill, L.D. 1711, which went before the Health and Human Services Committee, would direct Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services to create a program offering medication-assisted treatment – such as methadone or Suboxone – and access to “stable housing” for up to 50 people. Medication-assisted treatment is considered the “gold standard” for giving people with substance use disorder the best odds to recover, research has shown.

“In no uncertain terms, we are losing this battle with respect to some of Maine’s poorest and most at-risk people. And while we may have made progress in other areas, we haven’t really begun to bend the curve with respect to Maine’s homeless population,” said state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the bill’s sponsor.

The committee also heard testimony on a separate bill, L.D. 1682, that would establish a certification program for recovery homes, where some people live while undergoing substance use treatment.

Details of the pilot program outlined in L.D. 1711, such as how much it would cost and how it would be structured, have yet to be worked out.

But with Maine still dealing with an opioid epidemic – including a record high 376 drug overdose deaths in 2016 and 185 deaths through the first half of 2017 – lawmakers are working on a number of bills to expand access to treatment and otherwise address the crisis. The Press Herald highlighted the state’s opioid crisis last spring in a series called “Lost.”

Maine voters approved Medicaid expansion in November, and once expansion occurs, access to treatment for some low-income residents would increase substantially. But Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who opposes Medicaid expansion, is fighting with the Legislature on implementation and it’s unclear when expansion will go into effect.

LePage will be leaving office in 2019.

Several of those who might be affected by the pilot program testified before the committee Wednesday, including Portland resident Brianna Nielson.

“I ended up homeless for three months with only the clothes on my back,” Nielson said. “I knew I had to make a change. I was scared. I went to a detox and then into rehab and I have been very successful in my sobriety since then.”

She said that “getting into my own apartment was so important for my recovery” and that providing housing will help others turn their lives around. Nielson said she landed a full-time job and will start next week.

Seth Blais, of Portland, said he lived in a “sober house” and used medication-assisted treatment to recover from his opioid addiction.

“For the first time in more than a decade, I was living in a safe environment where I was held accountable for my actions,” he said. “It was in that controlled housing environment where I was able to find longterm recovery.”

The recovery home bill, L.D. 1682, would make certification of such homes voluntary. But agencies that receive public funds would only be allowed to make referrals to certified homes, and a home would have to be certified to receive public funds itself.

Other states, including Florida and New York, have reported that some recovery homes were bilking families and otherwise taking advantage of people suffering from substance use disorders. L.D. 1682’s sponsor, state Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she wanted to set standards for the industry before that problem arose in Maine.

“We haven’t heard any horror stories in Maine just yet, but we have heard of some shady stories, such as people spending lots of money to live in a section of a basement only divided by curtains,” said Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, which represents Maine’s community behavioral health providers.

A certification program, including standards, would be set up by DHHS, but would likely follow national standards that are already used as guidelines for legitimate recovery homes, Bellows said.

“Within the last year, overdose deaths in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania have been attributed to living situations that were billed as recovery residences but turned out to be unsafe and exploitive environments. We need to make sure that never happens in our state,” she said.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said housing is a huge issue. He called it a “myth” that county jails can adequately treat drug-addicted inmates during an average 27-day stay. Homeless individuals typically spend only a few days in jail and must be released when detaining them can no longer be justified, Joyce said. Instead, these individuals need regular, sustained treatment at hospitals or treatment facilities.

“I don’t think anybody should have to go to jail to get help,” Joyce said.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @joelawlorph

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