Maine Medical Center is launching an initiative to help battle Maine’s heroin crisis by expanding treatment options at the doctor’s office. Treatment programs in the state have shriveled at the same time Maine has seen a surge in heroin addiction.

The program is modest – three employees to float between several primary care practices and an $800,000 investment – but Maine Med officials say they recognize the severity of Maine’s heroin problem and hope that the new initiative is a small step in the right direction.

The new pilot program will integrate addiction treatment into existing primary care practices.

Dr. Christopher Sprowl, president of Maine Medical Partners, the hospital’s primary care network, said primary care offices in Greater Portland will now have access to addiction specialists to help patients in their treatment. Also, he said, 10 doctors have been trained to prescribe Suboxone, a replacement drug therapy that can help heroin addicts wean off of opiates.

Sprowl said the program –which is not yet operating but is expected to start in the coming months – may expand in future years.

“We are bringing addiction treatment into our primary care practices,” Sprowl said.

Dr. Jonathan Fellers, an addiction expert, will coordinate the program, which includes himself and two substance abuse counselors.

“It’s a pilot program to see if we can expand access in this way,” Fellers said. “The system right now really struggles to treat addicts.

“We’re already treating these patients. We just want to offer addiction services to them as well.”

Dr. Girard Robinson, senior vice president at Maine Behavioral Healthcare, said the initiative is not intended to replace Mercy Recovery Center’s closing this summer and is just “one small piece of the pie” to try to alleviate the heroin epidemic. Mercy laid off about 45 employees when it closed its Westbrook recovery center, although Mercy officials said at the time they hoped that some of the patients could be absorbed into its primary care network. Also this past summer, a treatment center in Sanford closed.

Maine is suffering from numerous societal and health problems resulting from the surge in heroin use, including more drug-affected babies and hepatitis C cases. The number of people seeking treatment for opiate use escalated from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Heroin overdose deaths increased from seven in 2009 to 57 in 2014.

Fellers said Maine and the nation are dealing with “overprescribing” of prescription opiates that exploded in the 2000s, as people became addicted to the prescribed drugs, and then many later turned to heroin.

“The risks of prescribing these opiates that were underappreciated then are really starting to be seen now,” Fellers said.

Fellers said as the country grapples with more heroin addicts, the social stigma against addicts persists. That stigma presents barriers to having the political will to invest in treatment.

“Substance abuse has been even more marginalized than mental illness,” Fellers said. “There’s a societal sigma of whether we should treat this as a medical condition, or is it a moral decision signaling a lack of willpower?”

Fellers said the evidence is that addiction is a medical condition that needs to be treated.

Steve Coutreau, manager at the Portland Community Recovery Center, a support group for addicts, said that while the Maine Med plan will not replace Mercy Recovery’s closing, the news is encouraging.

“Something is better than nothing,” Coutreau said. “Any focus on treatment is fantastic.”

Coutreau said monthly visits to the recovery center have ballooned from 2,500 during the summer to 3,300 in October, as they struggle to connect people to treatment programs that often don’t have slots or are nonexistent.

“They come here looking for help, and often there’s nothing available,” Coutreau said. “They’ll usually just go back out and start using again.”


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