Maine’s largest substance abuse treatment center, the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook, has expanded its operating hours in response to the state’s growing addiction problem.

Starting this week, people who want help for alcoholism or drug addiction can get an initial assessment until 7 p.m. on weekdays.

While Mercy already offered evening sessions for treatment, people seeking initial assessments had to come in before 3 p.m. Now, someone can go to the Westbrook office after work, get an assessment and begin outpatient counseling that evening or the next day.

“For individuals in this very difficult economy who are trying to keep their jobs while also accessing outpatient treatment, we wanted to make sure that could happen,” said Charles Morris, outpatient manager.

Morris said the expanded hours are a response to insecurity about the economy and Maine’s growing addiction epidemic, which is driven largely by prescription drug abuse.

He said he hopes that recent media reports on the problem, including a series of articles about painkiller abuse in MaineToday Media last week, will lead more people to ask for help.

In many cases, he said, relatives who learn about addiction through media coverage encourage addicts to seek help. “I think families have a big role,” he said.

Mercy’s expanded hours reflect a long-running effort by addiction treatment providers statewide to reduce barriers and maximize access, said Eric Haram, president of the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs and director of the Addiction Resource Center at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

“Addiction is a window-of-opportunity illness. A person can change their mind about what they want to do about it every five minutes,” he said. “When a person calls, the correct response is, ‘Come in.’ “

Maine received a federal grant in 2006 that allowed 16 treatment agencies around the state to get management training from engineers at the University of Wisconsin. Through regular reports and coaching, the programs gradually reduced waiting times and increased the numbers of patients receiving treatment, Haram said.

The Addiction Resource Center, for example, reduced waiting times from 11 days to two days, doubled the number of patients and reduced the cost of treatment 30 percent, he said.

Since then, he said, Maine’s Office of Substance Abuse has built performance standards into annual contracts, penalizing programs that have longer waiting times, for example.

“There’s been a level of collaboration or cooperation between the state and providers to pull absolutely as much out of this (treatment network) as we can,” Haram said.

That has become increasingly important given the increasing demand for addiction treatment in Maine. Nearly 4,000 Mainers were admitted last year for treatment of painkiller addiction, and experts say thousands more have no access to treatment for a variety of reasons, including work and child care.

Both Haram and Morris said another reason to maximize access now is the fact that two residential treatment programs, Serenity House in Portland and the St. Francis Recovery Center in Auburn, are reducing their patient capacities in response to a loss of federal Medicaid funding.

The Mercy Recovery Center typically has 40 to 60 patients coming to the center for three hours, six days a week, for intensive outpatient treatment. The treatment typically lasts two to four weeks.

Patients can walk in or make an appointment for the initial assessment, which takes a little over an hour, Morris said.

Treatment is covered by MaineCare and private insurance, and some patients with no insurance may qualify for discounted fees.

Mercy also operates a residential detoxification program for patients who are going through withdrawal or need more care, as well as follow-up care and other services.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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