AUGUSTA — Maine is on the edge of making a terrible mistake in its approach to drug addiction and its devastating consequences.

Gov. LePage, who spoke of drug addiction as part of his recent State of the State address, has shined a spotlight on the problem, but his approach, which focuses on punishment over treatment, moves our state in the wrong direction.

The Jan. 30 Portland Press Herald editorial, “Our View: Addicted Maine women will pay for treatment cuts,” should be alarming to Mainers, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mainers – men, women and children – with substance use disorders are lingering all across our state, waiting for treatment.

Thousands of low-income Mainers lost their MaineCare coverage Jan. 1 due to budget cuts. The loss of coverage has hurt individuals in need of health care and threatened the viability of substance abuse treatment programs and other health care providers that serve people struggling with addiction. Some agencies will close their doors, lay off workers and eliminate or reduce services to clients.

The administration’s response to the ever-growing increase in addiction and demand for treatment is simplistic at best and punitive at worst. It ignores evidence that addiction is a chronic but treatable brain disorder, a recognized medical fact substantiated by years of science-based research.

Addiction goes well beyond an individual’s bad decision. Drug addiction is a condition, and like other conditions that affect an individual’s health, one that needs to be taken seriously. Appropriate and timely treatment can reduce the risk of health, life, relationship and financial complications associated with substance abuse.

It’s important, though, to remember that substance abuse disorders can be caused by a number of factors and that the use and overprescribing of certain prescription drugs – including opioids, central nervous system depressants and stimulants for other health conditions – can lead to a variety of adverse health effects, including addiction.

Many people who have received treatment for addiction and who are in recovery remain at risk. Every day we hear new stories about men and women who don’t have access to the health care they need, including addiction treatment.

One woman who became addicted to painkillers after back surgery has proudly been drug-free for 24 months. She just received her associate degree from a community college but now fears that without some support, her life will fall apart.

People in recovery who are reunited with their families and working also live in fear of regressing. Their recourse is the emergency department, the streets or, heaven forbid, jail. How cost-effective is that? What about the growing burden on hospitals, public safety and Maine’s communities and citizens?

Research shows that every $1 spent on substance abuse treatment saves $4 in health care costs and $7 in law enforcement and other criminal justice costs. A recent study published in Journal of Crime and Delinquency concluded that choosing substance abuse treatment over prison could save billions nationally through positive net societal benefits and cost savings to our criminal justice system.

Maine has the opportunity to reduce the burden caused by addiction. We can accept the federal funds set aside for Maine to provide Medicaid coverage to low-income people in our state, many of whom are working. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of services for three years and continue to pick up most of the cost thereafter.

Accepting the federal funds will help reposition our state to one that acknowledges the importance of the physical and behavioral health of all its citizens, regardless of their income, giving more people the chance for a healthier, productive life.

The opportunity brings with it additional resources for treatment and recovery support, which will help reduce the costs associated with the lack of treatment in other areas, including public safety and corrections.

If our governor is committed to fighting drug abuse, then we hope that he can realize that incarceration alone is not the answer. We need an effective approach that looks to improve lives, not just to punish.

Treatment works and recovery is possible. For the thousands of Mainers now without access to any kind of health care, a vote to pass Medicaid expansion is a huge part of the answer in fighting drug abuse in Maine.

— Special to the Press Herald