My patient “Bobby” starting using opiates as a teenager. A friend with leukemia gave him some pills that helped him feel good and let him forget his difficult life at home. He never expected to get
addicted, but he gradually had to use more and more opiates in order to get the same high. Eventually he was unable to stop. He moved on to snorting opiates and then using heroin (which was cheaper) just to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. Soon he was in financial trouble and alienated from his family.

“Jane” was first given opiates during a bout with neck cancer. She had pain related to surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Her oncologist continued to increase her dose of opiates when she complained of neck pain even though she had no recurrence of her cancer. Eventually she too developed opioid use disorder, or OUD.

“Ginny” had been using opiates for 10 years when she became pregnant. She wanted to get off drugs so that she could have a healthy baby. But when she tried to stop the opiates early in her pregnancy, she felt miserable and unable to stop.

As a family physician for the past 36 years in Somerset County, I have worked to help people like Bobby, Jane and Ginny overcome the threat to their lives posed by OUD. I am pleased that the challenges faced by OUD patients and their doctors are starting to get the attention that they deserve. As an example, the recent Governor’s Opioid Summit held at the Augusta Civic Center in July focused new attention on opioid use disorder.

The conference showcased the inspiring experiences of those in recovery and revealed much about the challenges of their journeys. It also brought attention to the heartbreaking stories of those whose beloved family members who could not overcome OUD and succumbed to the condition.

As a physician I have personally cared for many patients who were once caught up in this epidemic but are now able to stay out of trouble, parent their kids, finish college, get good jobs and support their families. These success stories were made possible by evidence-based treatment for their disease. Some of my favorite patients are those now in recovery from opiates. Their improvement has been rapid, and it left them deeply appreciative of the second chance at life that treatment provided.

To translate the hope offered by the Governor’s Conference into a reality requires resources. Many of the patients I previously treated were unable to afford the care they needed. Now, many can access treatment because of the expansion of MaineCare. Despite their low profile, Medicaid programs like MaineCare help nearly 4 in 10 Americans suffering from opioid use disorder get treatment. Data shows that having Medicaid insurance makes it significantly more likely that non-elderly adults will seek treatment. Although MaineCare helps, there is much work ahead to get help to the rest of those in need. Those in Maine’s prison population are particularly at risk. Programs are needed to ensure that the treatment during incarceration can continue after release to improve inmates’ chances of successfully re-entering society and becoming productive members of our communities.

Additional work is also needed at the national level. You should be aware that our own Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, is providing leadership in this important area. He is an original cosponsor of H.R. 2569, the CARE Act, a landmark piece of legislation that would allow us to confront the opioid epidemic in a more comprehensive way. It’s designed to expand access to evidence-based treatment by providing $10 billion per year over ten years, focusing on the states, counties, cities, and towns with the highest levels of opiate overdoses. It would support treatment and recovery services and improve access to overdose reversal drugs.

Golden has also cosponsored the Incentivizing Medicaid Expansion Act, H.R. 584, to support states like Maine that have expanded Medicaid. Finally, he is working to protect access to health care by supporting efforts to push back legislatively against court challenges to the Affordable Care Act. All these efforts will help Maine communities like ours and physicians like me continue to battle the opiate scourge.

For most of the time that I have been engaged in caring for people with opioid use disorder, there has not been enough treatment for those that need it and some patients struggle to afford their medications and treatment if they don’t have insurance.

Congress has been slow to respond to the crisis, but fortunately for Bobby, Jane and Ginny and for thousands like them, Golden is fighting for our Maine communities and working to find solutions to the opioid crisis. As a doctor, as a parent and as a citizen of Maine I am deeply thankful.

Ann Dorney, M.D., is a resident of Norridgewock and a former Democratic state legislator.

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