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Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess (R-Cumberland)
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For Immediate Release

Date: 02/22/12

Rep. Strang Burgess on prescription drug abuse

By Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess

If you doubt that prescription drug abuse is a problem in Maine, consider the following facts.

Maine is one of the top three states in the nation in terms of increase in pharmacy robberies over the past year. The increase is so jarring that federal authorities are joining the investigations.

In the last 10 years, about 1,400 Maine residents have died from overdoses or abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, including oxycodone and methadone. These synthetic opiates are known as "opioids" and are prescribed for pain.

Drug-related deaths now exceed traffic accident fatalities. In 2009, for example, there were 179 deaths from drugs while 155 Maine citizens lost their lives on the road. Roughly 90 percent of the drug deaths were caused at least in part by prescription drugs.

Some of the most tragic stories involve newborns. In 2010 alone, more than 500 babies born in Maine entered the world drug-dependent, facing withdrawal pangs. That was an increase from 165 drug-dependent newborns in 2005 and 464 in 2008. Most of these babies were born methadone-dependent.

According to Maine law enforcement agencies, prescription drugs are the cause of 32 percent of property crimes and 27 percent of violent crimes - the highest rates in the country.

Maine, in short, has a horrific problem with prescription drug abuse and addiction. While this is a crisis nationally, Maine seems particularly hard hit.

A scholarly research paper published last year - "Opiates Downeast: Maine's Drug Epidemic" - summed it up like this, "Although no one knows precisely why levels of prescription drug addiction are so high in Mainerural areas, in general, may be especially vulnerable to addiction if they are surrounded by poverty and a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness."

The report continued, "Prescription drugs can prove a deadly fit to that need, not only because rural populations are more accepting of opiate abuse than of other drugs, but also because the areas themselves can be populated with people working blue-collar jobs whose occupation hazards often require opiate treatment."

Regardless of the causes, Maine is now tackling this issue head-on. It is clear that more aggressive action is needed to stem the human wreckage and devastation brought on by abuse of prescription drugs.

The legislative panel that I chair, the Health and Human Services Committee, has been highly active in this campaign. I have been cleared to introduce four new bills during this session based on findings of a comprehensive study of Maine's opiate problem. That report, put together last fall by the state's Substance Abuse Services Commission, is filled with recommendations, including such obvious steps as maintaining effective drug disposal programs and improved communication between healthcare providers who co-treat pain patients.

There is no "silver bullet" to remedy the situation. Instead, state government is looking to various smaller fixes to attack different parts of the problem, such as easy availability. The "Opiates Downeast" report observed, "Physicians have continued to rely on opiates to treat pain, resulting in large supplies of dangerous medications accessible in medicine cabinets across the country." This surplus, it said, "becomes especially dangerous in light of the fact that opiates can be uniquely attractive to potential drug addicts and dealers."

On February 1, in a major development, Governor LePage announced the formation of a task force on prescription drug abuse. Assembled by Maine Attorney General William Schneider, the group will include experts in medicine, dentistry, education, pharmacology and law enforcement. The governor's executive order establishing the task force cited "increasing and alarming rates of abuse" that require "a coordinated, statewide approach."

The task force will undertake an ambitious, multi-pronged agenda based on the attorney general's October "summit" meeting on the subject. Key issues include developing a long-term drug disposal program, developing a public education campaign to reduce misuse and abuse and implementing a program to notify doctors and other prescribers statewide when a patient is arrested for diverting drugs. It also will review and improve use of the state's Prescription Monitoring Program, a database that enables doctors to check on patients' prescription activity.

Even the recently passed supplemental budget played a role in controlling prescription drugs while also saving the state money in the MaineCare program. From now on, doctors may prescribe an opiate for just 15 days, for a maximum of three times in 45 days. The only exceptions are MaineCare members receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS or cancer or who are in hospice care.

It is encouraging to me that Maine is finally getting serious about this problem. It is a terrible thing to see lives wasted and families disrupted by drug addiction and abuse. We might not be able to stamp out this drug epidemic completely, but this coordinated attack can make a difference. ###

State Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess (R-Cumberland) is House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. Her district includes Cumberland, Chebeague Island, Long Island and part of North Yarmouth. She can be reached at RepMeredith.StrangBurgess@legislature.maine.gov

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Maine House Republicans
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