The MaineGeneral health care system is preparing to launch a new program this summer that would give it greater flexibility to treat people with opioid addiction who are seeking a medication, like Suboxone, to alleviate their withdrawal symptoms.

There is significant demand for medication-assisted treatment in Maine. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 of the state’s residents are now seeking treatment for their addiction, according to a survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And an average of one Mainer is now dying every day from an opioid overdose.

Family Nurse Practitioner Alane O’Connor talks about the new addiction treatment program during an interview at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

To help meet the demand for medication-assisted treatment, MaineGeneral in the last year has trained about 50 of its primary care providers to prescribe Suboxone. The system also has room for about 100 patients who, in the throes of addiction, need intensive outpatient treatment, according to Alane O’Connor, a nurse practitioner in Waterville.

But the program that’s starting this summer will provide a third level of care that is meant to bridge the gap from intensive outpatient treatment – where patients see a provider four times a week – to primary care, which requires far fewer visits.

Patients in the new program will receive intensive counseling and be prescribed Suboxone, but they’ll only visit their providers twice a week, said O’Connor, who has been treating opioid addicted patients for the last 10 years and helped designed the new program.

“It’s a step down,” she said. “It’s a hierarchy.”

The goal of the program, which is called Outpatient Plus, is not just to ramp up how many people can receive medication-assisted treatment at MaineGeneral, but also to provide a more nuanced range of care for patients with complicated health issues.

The program will be staffed by providers who work in other parts of the health care system, such as the emergency room.

Using grant funding from the Maine Health Access Foundation, MaineGeneral has also hired a licensed alcohol-and-drug counselor who will screen new patients to determine which level of care they need.

Eventually, patients in the new program could become stable enough to step down to a primary care provider. That provider could continue to treat the patient’s opioid dependency while focusing on other, underlying medical conditions. Patients could remain in Outpatient Plus for as short as a month and as long as a year, O’Connor said. As they continue on the medication, their doctor would try to prescribe less over time.

In Maine, there’s been an escalating number of deaths tied to the abuse of opioids, particularly from fentanyl and heroin.

Maine overdose deaths rose for the fifth straight year in 2016, climbing nearly 40 percent to claim a record 378 people, according to figures released in February by the state Attorney General’s Office. The 378 fatalities surpassed the previous record of 272 set in 2015.

By offering new programs such as Outpatient Plus, O’Connor said, MaineGeneral is trying to meet the great demand for opioid addiction treatment in central Maine.

When the program is up and running, she said, patients will ideally be able to call a single phone number, meet with the drug-and-alcohol counselor who was recently hired by the system and get placed in the appropriate level of care.

Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

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