Betsy Richard, right, the care coordinator for substance use disorder with Somerset Public Health, and Keith Bellefleur, options liaison with Sweetser, are available to assist community members Thursday at the Community Connection Center in Madison. The center at 108 Old Point Ave. distributes free Narcan for those facing opioid overdoses. Containers b containing Narcan are shown at the bottom right. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

A new partnership between law enforcement and public health officials marks the latest step in tackling the opioid epidemic in Somerset County.

Called “First Response to Recovery,” the grant-funded program brings together the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office and Somerset Public Health, a division of Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, along with other area organizations, in their efforts to address the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Before forging this partnership, which launched at the beginning of 2024, the Sheriff’s Office had been looking for years to create a program to connect county residents to available resources and treatment for substance use disorder, according to Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster.

“It is a problem in the county,” Lancaster said. “The death itself is a tragic loss, but all the families that are connected to that death, they suffer as well.”

The multifaceted program includes an overdose “quick response” team, led by a care coordinator from Somerset Public Health and assisted by a sheriff’s deputy as needed, that will follow up after overdoses with the goal of preventing future incidents.

With the care coordinator embedded directly in the Sheriff’s Office, the idea is that sheriff’s deputies will be more likely to make referrals after responding to overdose calls, according to Betsy Richard, the Somerset Public Health care coordinator running the program. Inmates at the Somerset County Jail who are set to be released can also meet with Richard to be connected with resources ahead of their release, she said.


“Our plan is that it will reduce some of the stigma and some of the compassion fatigue that goes along with this line of work for first responders,” Richard said.

Richard also staffs two community connection centers that recently opened in Madison and Bingham. The centers, each open one afternoon a week, offer referrals to treatment and free naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug commonly known as Narcan, among other resources.

The centers aim to remove the stigma of seeking help and are open to anyone in the community, Richard said.

And, as another aspect of the program, ambulance crews in the region will be provided with “leave-behind” bags containing information and Narcan for overdose patients who refuse care. EMS providers must leave those resources because of a new law that went into effect last year, Richard said.

The opioid epidemic has had its grip on Maine for years, and the situation in Somerset County is no different, Lancaster said.

In 2022, there were 32 fatal overdoses in Somerset County, more than double the number of overdose deaths in 2019, according to data published by the Office of the Maine Attorney General. That figure appeared to stay roughly the same through 2023, with 29 overdose deaths reported through November, though a final 2023 tally has not yet been published.


Nonfatal overdose incidents have also been on the rise in the county, with 403 reported through November of last year, up from 392 in 2022, according to the state data.

The percentage of overdoses that occurred in Somerset County has generally matched the county’s percentage of the total state population, the state data shows.

Statewide, overdose deaths hit a yearly record high at 723 in 2022, though officials said that number was on track to be slightly lower in 2023.

In response to the crisis, other law enforcement agencies in central Maine have also shifted their strategies. The Augusta Police Department now sends a licensed behavioral health clinician, rather than an officer, to nonfatal overdose calls, a change implemented in 2021. And Waterville police’s “Operation HOPE” has connected hundreds of people to substance use disorder treatment, according to officials.

Law enforcement does have a responsibility to address the issue, rather than simply making arrests, said Lancaster, the sheriff.

“The most important point is getting the person help,” Lancaster said. “That can be more important than the actual charging.”


Unlike other programs, the Somerset County partnership is unique in that it is countywide, rather than limited to just one municipality, Lancaster said.

That led organizers to establish the resource centers in Madison and Bingham, two smaller towns where people may not have been able to access resources that were only available in Skowhegan before, Richard said. And with an eye on the Sheriff’s Office’s day-to-day operations across several towns, Richard can also track data and trends in the county to shift resources accordingly, she said.

“We can really refine our overdose response to where the overdoses are occurring,” Richard said.

That could mean, for example, identifying a potential “bad batch” of drugs and putting out an alert to first responders, Richard said.

The program’s current grant, funded by the University of Baltimore Center for Drug Policy and Prevention, awarded about $137,000 for a period of one year, Richard said. But both she and Lancaster expect it to be successful and will look for more funding next year to extend it.

“If we can be part of the saving of one life, it’s worth it,” Lancaster said.

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