Task force urges aggressive action on prescription drug abuse
Lawmakers from both parties say the state must embrace recommendations outlined in the report.
MaineToday Media State House Writer
AUGUSTA — Lawmakers from both parties welcomed a report Wednesday calling for more aggressive and coordinated efforts to curb prescription drug abuse in Maine.
“This issue is so critical to what ails our state,” said Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland. “The sooner, better, more efficiently and more effectively we deal with this, the state will be better off all the way around.”
The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee reviewed a list of 33 recommendations presented by a task force of lawmakers, state officials and experts in health care and drug addiction.
The recommendations include anti-addiction education campaigns for doctors and the public, improvements in the state’s prescription tracking system, and a requirement that patients show photo IDs when they pick up painkiller prescriptions to ensure that the drugs don’t end up in the wrong hands.
Lawmakers set up the task force last year after a decade of efforts failed to contain opiate painkiller abuse in the state. Maine has the nation’s highest rate of residents seeking treatment for pain-pill addiction, and prescription drugs caused nearly 1,400 fatal overdoses statewide in the past decade.
Strang Burgess, the committee’s House chair, said lawmakers are constantly dealing with the results of painkiller abuse and addiction, in the form of rising costs to the state and a strain on the health care system.
“(It’s) a huge problem. It needs to be a huge priority,” she said.
Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, told the committee that the recommended actions will help – if someone makes sure they happen. Hinck authored the legislation that led to the study.
There needs to be a person or agency in charge of implementing the changes, Hinck said. “My guess is, without a driver, it will be hard to get them done.”
Burgess said the Health and Human Services Committee will work with the administration to try to maintain momentum and follow through on the report.
Katrin Teel, senior health policy adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, listened to Wednesday’s presentation of the report and said the administration will review the recommendations.
LePage has pledged to support abuse-prevention efforts, although he also has proposed funding cuts that would limit addiction treatment.
Attorney General William Schneider has said that he and LePage plan to form a standing task force to address the problem.
The legislative committee plans to discuss the report in more detail next month and take up several recommendations for changes in state law. One, for example, would allow drug users to summon help for overdose victims without fearing arrest.
Strang Burgess and other lawmakers asked the state Office of Substance Abuse to prepare cost estimates for some of the proposals that would require additional spending.
Strang Burgess said she’s confident that the state can attack the problem despite Maine’s budget problems. “It’s a prioritization problem. It’s not a money problem.”
Committee members approved one of the report’s recommendations on the spot. They voted unanimously to send a letter to Public Safety Commissioner John Morris requesting the appointment of a Drug Disposal Task Force to explore ways to dispose of expired and unused medications. The special waste is now shipped out of state at relatively high cost because of environmental safeguards.
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