U.S. Reps. Joe Kennedy III and Chellie Pingree listen to a testimonial from recovering opiate addict Dustin Palmer on Wednesday during a roundtable discussion at Maine Behavioral Healthcare in Biddeford. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

BIDDEFORD — Andrew Allen said he made a difficult call to Maine Medical Center three years ago, telling them he was addicted to opioids, had no insurance or money and needed help.

“They didn’t really have any answers or know what to do with me at that time, and I didn’t get any help,” Allen said Wednesday.

Fast forward to last October when Allen, 38 and still struggling with substance use disorder, called Maine Med again.

This time, despite still being uninsured, he was referred to MaineHealth’s new integrated medication-assisted treatment program, which had just launched.

Allen, of Portland, enrolled in the free program, which included intensive therapy and medication-assisted treatment. He said his life has improved dramatically, and he is starting a new job as an office furniture salesman.

Allen spoke after participating in a MaineHealth event in downtown Biddeford attended by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Massachusetts. Patients, health care experts and politicians discussed strategies to deal with the opioid crisis ravaging New England and the nation.

MaineHealth is the parent company of Maine Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, and several small hospitals in Maine and the North Conway, New Hampshire, area.

The steady expansions of some treatment programs in Maine – like the one at MaineHealth – are important, but highlight the glaring need for treatment resources statewide, experts say, especially for the uninsured.

The MaineHealth program has expanded from 643 patients in October 2017 to 922 now, according to the hospital network’s statistics. About 25 percent of its patients are uninsured.

The program, at eight locations in central, southern and coastal Maine, is expanding to Portland next year, and may be able to tap into a new pot of money. Maine lawmakers approved $6.6 million this year to help fight the opioid epidemic by providing treatment to the uninsured. It’s not clear yet how that funding will be disbursed, said Katie Fullam Harris, vice president of government relations for MaineHealth.

Maine and much of the nation is grappling with the opioid crisis. There were a record 418 drug overdose deaths in the state in 2017, with 354 caused by opioids.

In Massachusetts, the problem is also acute, with 1,977 opioid-related deaths in 2017, down slightly from 2016. Massachusetts’ opioid-related drug overdose deaths shows signs of declining further this year, according to initial reports. Maine has not yet seen a similar reduction, with deaths in 2018 so far tracking similar to 2017.

The rate of opioid drug overdose deaths in Maine has been about the same as in Massachusetts, between 25 and 30 deaths per 100,000 population in recent years, despite Massachusetts having expanded its Medicaid program and devoted more funding and resources toward treatment programs.

Maine voters overwhelmingly approved Medicaid expansion in November 2017, but implementation supporters are mired in a court fight with Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who opposes expansion. Substance use treatment is a covered benefit under Medicaid, so expansion would provide funding for providers like MaineHealth and easier access for low-income patients. About 70,000 Mainers would gain access to Medicaid insurance when the expansion is implemented.

Kennedy, who serves on the House health subcommittee, said the health care system needs to figure out how to create systems that effectively combat the drug crisis, which is one reason he visited MaineHealth’s Biddeford location.

“Money alone isn’t a solution,” Kennedy said. He said the way substance use, mental and behavioral health services are organized and delivered in the United States needs an overhaul.

“We wouldn’t ask a cancer patient to wait three to five months for an appointment, but that’s what we’re doing with these illnesses,” Kennedy said.

He said the federal government must provide a consistent source of funding to address substance use disorder, because often the problems continue after grants run out. Congress agreed to spend $4.6 billion this year on the opioid crisis, a one-time payment that experts said was insufficient.

“We have to change the funding structure of these programs to be sustaining,” he said.

Pingree said she’s impressed with the MaineHealth program, and states need to identify what works and replicate it.

“It’s a tough nut to crack, and we haven’t cracked it yet,” Pingree said.

The MaineHealth program starts with medication-assisted treatment, usually Suboxone, which controls urges for opioids and when combined with therapy is considered the “gold standard” of treatment. The first six weeks are “intensive outpatient” treatment, followed by a “stabilization” period that lasts several months when patients still attend treatment, but not as often. The final stage of the program has patients meeting with primary care physicians once per month to check on their progress.

Harris said MaineHealth developed the program in part because hospital officials recognized the health care system that overprescribed painkillers helped create the opioid epidemic. Both Allen and Dustin Palmer, 31, of Portland, who also shared his story with the group, said they became addicted to opioids after being prescribed painkillers for injuries.

There is no proof that opioids are effective in combating chronic pain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 80 percent of heroin users first abused prescription opioids before turning to heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Palmer said he has been homeless and in and out of prison for over a decade for crimes related to his substance abuse, before the MaineHealth program “saved my life.” He’s now a manager at a McDonald’s.

“This has touched me in a way that I can’t really explain,” Palmer said.

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

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Twitter: joelawlorph