Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the city’s response to a spate of suspected heroin overdoses in July highlighted what needs to change about how society deals with substance abuse.

Rescue workers typically revive addicts with Narcan, an overdose antidote, and take them to hospital emergency rooms, he said. The addicts are then sent home with no intervention to provide them with long-term help – meaning they likely went right back to using heroin again.

“It was an old-school response using an old-school model,” said Sauschuck, referencing a 24-hour period in July when there were 14 suspected heroin overdoses in the city, resulting in two fatalities.

Sauschuck and other officials at City Hall on Wednesday announced details of a new initiative, the Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program, that the city hopes will be a more effective response to addiction.

But it’s unclear how the program will work when there are often no openings in long-term treatment programs, especially for addicts who have no insurance coverage and can’t afford to pay for costly services out of their own pockets.

The key to combating addiction in Maine, experts say, is finding money for treatment in a state that has seen shrinking treatment options. Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook closed this summer, as did a treatment center in Sanford.

Many heroin addicts are uninsured and have little money because they’ve lost their jobs and have spent down their savings accounts, and finding treatment for them is extremely difficult, substance abuse experts have said.

The city will use drug forfeiture money to hire one person in early 2016 for the new position of substance abuse disorder liaison.

The liaison will not be a sworn police officer, but will work out of the police department, perhaps responding alongside police at times on overdose calls. The liaison will work to identify treatment options and help connect addicts with other resources, such as housing. The new employee also will work on public education programs to help prevent heroin abuse.

The Portland program was inspired, in part, on a drug diversion program in Seattle called LEAD. Kris Nyrop, LEAD’s national support director, said that Washington state, unlike Maine, expanded Medicaid, which allows people in the program to be referred to treatment.

“That’s absolutely essential,” Nyrop said. “You have to have something to refer people to that provides the treatment, that’s effective, science- and evidence-based treatment.”

‘it’s going to be a challenge’

Sauschuck said the police department will use the drug forfeiture money to help pay for treatment in some circumstances, but he said he doesn’t know to what extent. The budget for the program hasn’t been set yet, but he said there’s currently $150,000 in the drug forfeiture account.

Shannon Trainor, CEO of Crossroads, a substance abuse treatment center in Portland, said the city’s program is a promising start, but there must be funding for treatment.

“They’re starting small and looking to grow from there,” said Trainor, who served on a mayor’s committee to help devise the program. “It’s going to be a challenge without treatment funding attached to it.”

Trainor said that at Crossroads, for instance, they can provide treatment for a few uninsured patients, but not many.

“We all want to help people and that’s why we’re in this business, but you can only provide so much free treatment or you can’t pay your staff or you can’t pay to keep the lights on,” Trainor said.

State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, attended Wednesday’s news conference and said he is aiming to help provide funding for the program.

“We are in a crisis state. We need a new focus, a new strategy,” he said. A lawyer and former police officer, Dion has introduced a bill to be considered by the Legislature in January that would provide $2 million for eight pilot programs, including the LEAAP program in Portland.

‘WE’RE DONE WAITING’

Heroin overdose deaths have soared statewide since 2012, with 57 in 2014 and 37 through the first six months of this year. The number of people seeking treatment for opiate use climbed from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.

City emergency crews administered Narcan 107 times in 2014 and 155 times through Nov. 30 of this year, Sauschuck said.

In July, Portland had 14 suspected heroin overdoses during one 24-hour period, resulting in two fatalities.

Gov. Paul LePage has often highlighted the heroin crisis in speeches, emphasizing a law enforcement approach, while acknowledging that treatment and prevention are important. It’s unclear whether the governor and the Legislature can hash out an approach that’s acceptable to a majority of Republicans and Democrats when the Legislature convenes in January.

Sauschuck said the problem is so acute that the city couldn’t wait to see whether the Legislature would fund the program.

“We’re done waiting on other people,” Sauschuck said. He said his views on substance abuse have evolved to where he now recognizes that it’s a public health problem in addition to being a law enforcement issue.

Sauschuck hopes the program will grow, mirroring the city’s mental health liaison, which has expanded over the past few years. The mental health liaison connects potential clients with resources, such as housing and treatment, and has been a nationally recognized success, Sauschuck said.

The city also was inspired by efforts at the Scarborough and Gloucester, Massachusetts, police departments. Those programs offer to connect people walking into the police department with treatment.

Mayor Michael Brennan is hoping the program will help alleviate the heroin epidemic. He said the overdose deaths weigh on his mind.

“It’s shocking to see these type of things happening in the city,” he said.

Joe Lawlor can be reached at 791-6376 or at:

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