This week, the Obama administration called on states to ease access to naloxone, a lifesaving prescription drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Federal drug officials noted that the number of deaths resulting from prescription drugs and heroin is a huge public health crisis, and requires a serious response. But not every public official is ready to heed that call.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), who has consistently opposed efforts to broaden the use of naloxone, appears to be ready to shoot down yet another piece of legislation on the subject.
On Wednesday, the state legislature is holding a hearing on a bill that would allow police officers, first responders, and the family members of people struggling with opiate addiction to have access to naloxone. But State Rep. Sara Gideon (D), the primary sponsor of the legislation, told the Huffington Post that the governor’s chief health policy adviser has already indicated that LePage won’t support the measure.
“His main objection is his belief — and I have to emphasize ‘his belief’ because there is no evidence that supports this at all — his belief that increasing the availability of Narcan or naloxone will lead the drug user or drug abuser to have this feeling of invincibility,” Gideon explained.
In fact, a wide body of research has found that naloxone and is a safe and cost-effective method of preventing deaths. The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the World Health Organization all support policies to expand access to the drug in the very same ways that Gideon’s bill proposes. The director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, first began calling for wider access to naloxone back in 2012.
On Tuesday, Kerlikowske explicitly endorsed legislation like Gideon’s, pointing out that law enforcement has a critical role in preventing overdose deaths. “We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” the nation’s top drug official said.
LePage appears to disagree. The GOP leader has taken a hardline stance against drug use during his time in office, one that sharply diverges from his fellow governors in the New England area. As a growing heroin abuse problem continues to plague Northeastern states, the top officials in Vermont and New Hampshire have pledged to dedicate more resources to treatment and intervention. But LePage has favored enforcement over treatment, emphasizing the need to arrest and prosecute drug offenders.
Although LePage has promised to hire 14 additional agents for Maine’s Drug Enforcement Agency — a move that will cost about $1 million — he has repeatedly cut funding for substance abuse programs that are intended to provide treatment to low-income residents struggling with addiction. For several years in a row, he’s proposed budgets that include big cuts to substance abuse services, and some clinics are warning that they’re now on the brink of being forced to close. He also approved a policy change to Maine’s Medicaid program that cuts off coverage for substance abuse treatment after two years.
“We all know that we have an opioid abuse epidemic in Maine and implementing barriers to treatment is not going to help the problem,” Alane O’Connor, a nurse in the state who prescribes drugs intended to help with opiate addictions, told the Morning Sentinel after the new Medicaid policy took effect at the end of last year.
Last year, LePage also rejected a bill that would have increased medical assistance in the case of a drug overdose by ensuring that the people who seek out help can’t get in trouble with the law.
Meanwhile, heroin deaths are on the rise in Maine. Three times as many people died from heroin overdoses in 2012 than in 2011. Last summer, the deputy fire chief in Portland said that his team was responding to up to four overdose calls every week.