A coalition of mayors from eight of Maine’s largest communities made its pitch to the LePage administration this week for a $2 million pilot program to fight the opiate addiction epidemic by steering addicts into treatment and away from jail.

But the Health and Human Services commissioner told the mayors they first need to spend more time figuring out exactly how the program could be implemented in Maine.

Members of the Mayors’ Coalition met Thursday with Commissioner Mary Mayhew to propose eight pilot projects statewide that would divert people addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers from jail and into treatment, something that can be hard for addicts to access, especially if they don’t have health insurance. Mayhew did not commit any of the $2 million requested by the mayors and asked for more information about the administration of and cost-effectiveness of their proposal, according to mayors who attended the meeting and now plan to respond by providing more details.

“(Mayhew) was curious to know about the bang for the buck. I got the sense if she was going to look into this amid all the other options, she wanted data to show this would work,” said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, who attended the meeting. “From my point of view, heroin is destroying families, individuals and neighborhoods. We have to get a better grasp on what is happening and deal with it.”

While Mayhew asked for more information and did not rule out a partnership with the mayors, a spokesman for the department issued a statement after the meeting that was critical of the group. “(Thursday) was their opportunity to present their proposal, and still they had no detailed plan, but asked for yet another meeting,” David Sorensen said in an email.

The pilot program developed by the coalition would cost $2 million in new funding, or $250,000 per site. It would be used to pay for a full-time case manager at each location to work with addicts to get them into treatment and secure other resources, such as health insurance and housing assistance. The remaining money could “provide flexible funding to assist addicts as they seek to stabilize their lives and move past addiction,” according to the coalition’s proposal.

The pilot program is modeled after the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, which was pioneered in Seattle in 2011. Instead of arresting people for low-level drug possessions and sales, offenders are diverted by law enforcement to community programs that provide housing, treatment and other services.

Casavant said that approach is needed to address a growing epidemic that affects all corners of the state, not just the cities represented by the Mayors’ Coalition. The coalition includes mayors from Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, Saco, Sanford and Westbrook. Four former members of the coalition – Auburn, Gardiner, South Portland and Waterville – dropped out of the group this year.

The number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction has tripled from 1,115 individuals in 2010 to 3,463 individuals in 2014, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Maine had 100 heroin or fentanyl overdose deaths in 2014 and 63 through June 30 of this year. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate painkiller sometimes mixed with heroin.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said it was very “positive that we had so many mayors from some of the largest cities in Maine stepping forward and asking the commissioner to work with us.”

“We will continue to provide information and continue to work together as mayors to collectively respond to the heroin epidemic in our communities,” he said. “We are still looking for a partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the largest provider of services.”

Sorensen, the DHHS spokesman, said the coalition first approached DHHS in July to discuss heroin addiction and Mayhew asked them for a proposal. His statement after the meeting was critical of the mayors for asking for money without providing all the details needed to ensure the plan will work.

“Maine doesn’t need meetings about meetings. Maine needs decisive action to fight against heroin addiction,” Sorensen said. “Maine DHHS already spends millions on case managers and treatment programs. There is nothing stopping Portland or any other police department from referring addicts to those DHHS-funded services instead of arresting them.”

Brennan bristled at Sorensen’s characterization of the coalition’s meeting with Mayhew and said it does not accurately convey the tone of the discussion. He said the meeting was a good give-and-take with the commissioner, who had many questions about how the program could be implemented in Maine.

“My hope would be that we have a positive response from the department and they’d want to work with us in partnership,” he said. “This is one of the most significant public health issues facing the state. It’s remarkable to have so many mayors step forward and ask DHHS for help.”

Casavant said he will continue to focus on working with Saco Mayor Don Pilon and a local ad-hoc committee to find strategies to address the heroin problem in the Biddeford-Saco community.

The heroin problem in Biddeford continues to grow and many addicts report they cannot get into treatment, Casavant said. Biddeford first responders so far this year have administered 96 doses of Narcan to 57 patients. In 2009, there were 14 patients given a total of 19 doses of Narcan, he said.

“When you see the destabilizing effect it has on our neighborhoods, when you see needles in the street, suddenly you realize the proverbial war on drugs is right here and you need to do something about it,” he said. “It’s clear to me each community has to develop its own response tailored to the community.”

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