February 2, 2012

LePage establishes prescription-drug task force

Gov. LePage signs an order setting up a 17-member task force to fight an 'alarming' problem in the state.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage formally created a state task force Wednesday to fight prescription drug abuse and addiction in Maine.

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Executive order

LePage signed an executive order outlining the membership and mission of the 17-member task force, which will include experts in medicine and law enforcement.

Attorney General William Schneider has worked to assemble the panel since October, when he organized a one-day summit on the issue.

"I have really high hopes for (the task force)," Schneider said in a recent interview. "It's a big problem for the state of Maine and it's something we can make a difference in."

The executive order cites "increasing and alarming rates of abuse" and findings from a newspaper series published by MaineToday Media in October.

"Nearly 1,400 Mainers have died from overdoses of pharmaceutical drugs in the last decade and drug-related deaths now exceed traffic fatalities in Maine. ... (And) more than 500 babies born in Maine in 2010 faced opiate withdrawal and other effects of their mothers' prescription drug abuse," the order says.

It says the problem demands a "coordinated, statewide approach."

Maine's Legislature also is focusing on the problem. Several bills introduced this week aim to curb abuse, with measures that include requiring photo identification from anyone who fills a painkiller prescription.

A legislative committee that's working to balance the state's Medicaid budget is considering new limits on painkiller prescription coverage as a way to save money and reduce abuse.

"There's a lot of public attention to the issue," said Gordon Smith, lobbyist for the Maine Medical Association. "This is a huge public health issue in the state ... and people want to do something about it."

Under the executive order signed Wednesday, the governor will appoint members of the task force to represent law enforcement; the medical, dental and pharmacy communities; state and local agencies; and educators. They will focus on four tasks identified during October's summit:

n Develop a long-term drug disposal program. Maine has led efforts to collect and dispose of unused medications to keep them from being abused or flushed into the environment, but restrictions on disposal have made the program too expensive to sustain or expand.

n Implement a program to notify doctors and other prescribers statewide when a patient is arrested for diverting drugs.

n Develop a public education campaign to reduce misuse and abuse.

n Review and improve use of the state Prescription Monitoring Program, a database that enables doctors to check on patients' prescription activity.

The task force will report every six months to the governor, the attorney general, the public safety commissioner, the environmental protection commissioner and the Legislature.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, has agreed to serve on the task force. He said Wednesday that it makes sense to keep the effort focused on specific goals.

"It's such a huge, complex issue, you really have to identify where you can make the most gains with the resources you have," he said.

Smith, the medical association's lobbyist, also has agreed to serve. He has been educating doctors about painkiller abuse for years, and met with LePage recently to talk about the problem.

Smith said the desire to reduce addiction goes beyond the State House. On Monday, he will take part in a meeting in Lubec to focus on prescription drug abuse in Washington County, an especially hard-hit area. Senate Majority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and Attorney General Schneider are expected to participate.

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