AUGUSTA — Top leaders at the State House agreed Thursday to allow consideration next session of a bill that would set standards for residential opioid addiction treatment programs.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, will be taken up when the Legislature convenes in January.

“An Act to Ensure Quality and Increase Access to Recovery Residences,” would establish standards for residential programs, which are currently unregulated other than having to abide by local zoning ordinances.

Bellows said the lack of official standards for recovery residences in Maine makes it difficult for patients and families to determine whether a particular residence will aid their recovery.

“It takes courage and determination for a person to say goodbye to their former lives and get on the path to recovery,” Bellows said in a prepared statement. “When Mainers take the step to enter a recovery residence, they deserve to know they’re getting the safe, healthy, stable environment they signed up for. By setting standards and expanding eligibility, recovery residences can become a key component of our fight against addiction and overdose.”

Maine is struggling with an epidemic of opioid addiction that led to 376 drug overdose deaths in 2016, mostly from opioid drugs that include heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers. The crisis, which reaches every corner of the state, has overwhelmed treatment resources and left public officials scrambling for solutions.

About 15,500 people received treatment for opioid addiction in 2015, but public health officials say the demand for treatment services is much higher. That demand has fueled the establishment of recovery houses, often called “sober houses,” especially in the Portland area – but the programs are essentially unregulated.

Bellows’ bill would have the state adopt standards set by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, a nonprofit affiliation of recovery house programs across about two dozen states and based in Minnesota. The alliance established a national standard for recovery houses that helps consumers identify the levels of services offered and compare resources and programs.

The legislation also would make people in recovery eligible for the Bridging Rental Assistance Program. The federally funded program provides housing subsidies to people with psychiatric conditions who lack the means to afford stable housing. The bill would amend rules to make it easier for people to use these funds to pay the costs for placement in a recovery residence.

For a bill to be considered during the second session of the Legislature, which begins Jan. 3, the Legislative Council must conclude that it addresses an emergency issue, according to the state constitution.

“If ever there were an emergency, it is the drug crisis, which is taking a toll on Maine families from all walks of life,” Bellows said. Her bill was endorsed by a special legislative task force set up to find solutions to the opioid crisis. The task force recently completed its work and forwarded a list of suggested bills, including Bellows’, to the full Legislature.

“Future generations will hold us accountable for the ability to face the drug crisis head-on and save Maine lives,” Bellows said in thanking the Legislative Council for allowing the bill to move forward. “With its decisions today, the council showed it’s serious about taking action.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

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