Maine’s opioid epidemic continues to claim an average of one life a day, according to data released Wednesday that shows the number of overdose deaths in the first half of 2017 was similar to the same period last year.

A report from the Maine Attorney General’s Office says drug overdoses killed 185 people in the 181 days from January through June, a slight decrease from 189 a year ago. Although the apparent plateau may seem like good news, the total number of deaths last year – 376 – was the highest ever recorded in Maine and an increase of nearly 40 percent from 2015.

The Attorney General’s Office also confirmed what law enforcement officials and treatment providers already know – that fentanyl, linked to 61 percent of the deaths so far this year, has firmly supplanted heroin as the deadliest drug.

“The opioid epidemic continues to devastate our communities, both rural and urban, all across Maine,” Attorney General Janet Mills said in a written statement. “As public officials, first responders and community leaders, we must direct resources to real solutions. We must continue to work together to attack this problem, particularly with treatment, prevention and education. It is the greatest challenge of our time.”

Much of the country has been mired in an opioid crisis for the past several years, but the problem has been particularly acute in states such as Maine, which has seen a high rate of consumption of prescription opioid painkillers. Maine also has been slow to expand access to treatment, especially medication-assisted programs employing Suboxone, and slow to embrace the use of Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, said communities are finally starting to see the impact of better access to Narcan, which she said has almost certainly saved many lives.

“It’s unfortunate that things were held up as long as they were,” she said.

TOUGH PROBLEM, SOME PROGRESS

Of the 185 deaths through June, 56, or 31 percent, occurred in Portland. That eclipsed the annual total in 2013, just as the problem was starting to worsen.

Last spring, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram published a 10-part series exploring the state’s opioid epidemic, which has reached communities large and small and families poor and affluent. It found that Maine’s signature lobster industry has been hit especially hard, and that women are at greater risk because of a lack of services.

The series also found that despite some efforts to address the problem, there remains a critical need for more treatment, especially for the uninsured. And it found that stigma and shame still exist as barriers to progress.

Policymakers in Maine continue to debate a number of ways to address the crisis but have failed to reach a consensus. The arguments typically fall into two categories: That addiction is a disease that should be treated with medication, or that addiction is a moral failing and people who abuse drugs ought to be treated as lawbreakers.

The state has made big improvements in reducing the number of opioid prescriptions, in large part because it tightened monitoring requirements. According to a report issued in July, opioid prescriptions in Maine fell 21.5 percent from 2013 to 2016. That was the fourth-highest drop in the nation, which averaged a 14.6 percent reduction over the same period.

Maine also has expanded law enforcement efforts to attack the supply of drugs coming into the state. From 2014 to 2016, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency increased the number of heroin investigations from 306 to 531.

ACCESS TO TREATMENT LACKING

Improving access to treatment, though, has been much slower.

Last December, the administration of Gov. Paul LePage finally agreed to increase spending for medication-assisted treatment to an estimated 350 people who don’t have insurance. Also, as part of a supplemental spending package for the current biennial budget, the state committed $3 million, which triggered a federal contribution of $1.8 million, to create an Opioid Health Home model that could reach another 400 people.

Shaughnessy, though, said she has not heard that those funds have been put to use.

“I don’t know of a single person that has received access to treatment through those homes,” she said.

Other legislation has stalled. After pledging to make the opioid crisis a priority, lawmakers again failed during the most recent session to pass simple laws that many other states have had in place for some time.

Of the roughly 30 bills drafted to deal with some aspect of the crisis, most never got a vote in the full House or Senate. Some that required spending were placed on the Special Appropriations table, where bills often go to die because lawmakers writing the budget can’t find ways to fund them. Other bills were carried over into the next session, which is months away.

A task force created last winter to find solutions to the crisis continues to meet, but Shaughnessy said the state Department of Health and Human Services has not been a partner.

“At the last meeting we sent yet another letter asking for someone to attend, but we have yet to see anyone or hear from anyone,” she said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell