The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved the 21st Century Cures Act in a 94-5 vote, which includes $1 billion for opioid prevention and treatment programs.
Both Maine’s senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, voted for the bill, which will now go to President Obama, who is expected to sign it. The House approved it last week.
The $1 billion over two years for opioid programs will be distributed across the 50 states. A funding formula hasn’t yet been determined, so it’s unclear how much money will be coming to Maine.
Maine is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, with a record 286 drug overdose fatalities through Sept. 30, surpassing the 272 deaths that occurred in all of 2015. A large portion of the federal money is expected to fund medication-assisted treatment therapies, such as Suboxone and Vivitrol, that assist the brain by curbing urges.
While the funding will not be enough to solve the problem, it will help expand treatment options, said Bob Fowler, executive director of Portland’s Milestone Foundation. Milestone operates a detox program in Portland and a long-term treatment facility in Old Orchard Beach.
Fowler said he appreciates that lawmakers are seeing the “gravity and urgency” of the opioid crisis sweeping the nation.
“It’s a significant amount of funding, but it’s not what’s needed,” Fowler said.
About 25,000 to 30,000 in Maine need drug treatment but don’t have access, according to an estimate by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Collins said during a speech on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday that the funding for opioid treatment is greatly needed.
“I’m distressed when I hear about the lack of treatment options for Mainers who are struggling with drug addiction, particularly in rural areas. As a result of the shortage of treatment alternatives, this epidemic is playing out in emergency rooms, county jails, and on the main streets of my state. I can’t tell you how many sheriffs have come to me pleading for help, telling me that their intake area of their jails looks like a detox center or an emergency room of a hospital. They are overwhelmed by these cases,” Collins said.
King said in a statement that he’s glad Congress is finally funding drug treatment – a bill approved earlier this year to address the opioid crisis included a number of reforms, such as increasing the number of Suboxone patients a doctor can treat – but did not include additional funding.
“The drug epidemic is tearing apart the fabric of communities across Maine, impacting countless people and taking too many loved ones from us too soon – more this year than ever before. While we can’t end the epidemic overnight, we can take crucial steps to fight back,” King said in a statement.
The 21st Century Cures Act is a wide-ranging health bill, and includes $4.8 billion to the National Institutes of Health to fund additional research, including cancer and brain research. The act also accelerates approvals for some drugs, which has come under fire by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders because they say the changes will make it too easy to get under-tested pharmaceuticals on the market. But the bill largely earned bipartisan support in the House and Senate.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: