Maine lawmakers have approved spending $6.6 million a year to combat the opioid crisis by helping uninsured Mainers obtain treatment.

The Senate voted unanimously in favor of the legislation Thursday. The House had approved the bill Wednesday by voice vote.

The bill still faces a significant hurdle – lawmakers have to appropriate money for it – but the overwhelming votes are a positive sign that it’s been deemed a high priority, advocates said.

It also is not clear whether Republican Gov. Paul LePage supports the bill or would veto it. LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the governor does not comment on legislators’ bills.

The money would help pay for medication-assisted treatment – such as methadone and Suboxone – for the uninsured, who are the most likely to lack access to treatment. The bill is intended to help 400 to 500 people annually gain access to treatment during a time that the opioid crisis has left thousands battling addiction or dying from overdoses.

In comparison, expanded eligibility for Medicaid coverage would open up treatment to the 70,000 Mainers who would be newly eligible for the coverage. Maine voters approved Medicaid expansion in November, but LePage is fighting with Democratic state lawmakers over funding and it’s not clear when it might be implemented.

BILL’S SPONSOR IS ‘VERY, VERY HOPEFUL’

In the meantime, treatment advocates praised the Legislature for supporting new funding.

“This would be a game-changer,” said Bob Fowler, executive director of Milestone Recovery, which operates a detox center in Portland and a residential treatment home in Old Orchard Beach.

Fowler said it would be the most significant opioid bill to help the uninsured since Maine’s heroin crisis began. The crisis has worsened substantially since 2012, with record numbers of overdose deaths every year since then, including 418 in 2017.

The funding “is really good news and is very promising,” Fowler said.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, had tried but failed to get it passed in 2017. However, the bill was carried over to the 2018 session, and Vachon said lawmakers worked with Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials on the details of the bill.

“There’s no celebrating until it’s done,” she said. “But I feel very, very hopeful.”

Vachon said the worsening of the crisis and perhaps the fact that it’s an election year may have helped the bill advance.

“I would like to think that after 418 deaths, people are like, ‘My gosh, this is way too many. This has got to stop,’ ” she said.

‘REALLY SENDS AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE’

Maine spends about $70 million to $75 million per year on substance use treatment programs, with the bulk of it set aside for Medicaid or other government-funded programs.

A $4.8 million state program, Opioid Health Homes, started last year with the goal of helping 170 uninsured Mainers get medication-assisted treatment. It has so far failed to get off the ground, with only five uninsured Mainers getting treatment and less than $60,000 being spent as of early February.

According to DHHS, 8,627 Mainers received medication-assisted treatment in 2016, with 215 slots available for those without insurance.

Meanwhile, there’s not a good estimate of how many Mainers lack access to opioid treatment, but a U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey estimates about 25,000 Mainers struggling with all forms of drug addictions believe they don’t have access to treatment programs.

Katie Fullam Harris, senior vice president of government relations at MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, said there’s still work to do, but this week was a milestone in getting the bill passed.

“It really sends an important message that legislators recognize that this is a public health crisis and we need to provide resources and support to vulnerable individuals,” she said.

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

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Twitter: joelawlorph

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