SOUTH PORTLAND — The parent company of Maine Medical Center opened a substance use treatment center Thursday in South Portland, adding much-needed capacity to a health care system that has struggled to meet patient demand.

Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s new “hub” location on Western Avenue will treat about 150 patients a year for substance use disorder. It consists of a six-week “intensive outpatient” program followed by several months of therapy. After a few months, patients are typically transitioned to their primary care doctor, the “spokes” for continued treatment.

The South Portland hub is the latest example of Maine’s health care system improving access to opioid treatment – about 7,000 additional Mainers are expected to receive substance use treatment once Medicaid expansion is fully implemented. Currently, about 15,000 people who have Medicaid insurance receive opioid-addiction treatment. It’s unknown how many with private insurance are receiving treatment in Maine.

Treatment experts report that patients are finding it easier to get into programs now compared with a few years ago, although hurdles remain.

In South Portland, Dr. Christopher Buttarazzi will lead a staff of about a half dozen professionals who will provide therapy and organize group sessions. The primary treatment protocol is prescribing Suboxone, which curbs cravings, combined with therapy and peer support.

Having a coordinated system designed specifically for those suffering from substance use disorder will help reduce the stigma that sometimes is a barrier to those trying to get help, said Gordon Smith, director of opioid response for the Mills administration.

“This is the missing piece in many places across the state,” Smith said. “These kinds of places are just essential.”

Maine continues to grapple with the opioid crisis, although the severity has eased somewhat. After several years of increases, drug overdose deaths declined from 417 in 2017 to 354 in 2018, and deaths in the first quarter of 2019 were tracking lower than in 2018.

Andrew Allen of Portland, who is in recovery from opioid use disorder, told his story at the opening of the Maine Behavioral Health substance abuse treatment center Thursday in South Portland. Allen said he misused prescription opioids for more than a decade after suffering a lower back injury. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Andrew Allen, 39, who is in recovery from substance use disorder, said the hub that Maine Behavioral Healthcare opened in Biddeford a few years ago changed his life. Allen said he misused prescription opioids for more than a decade after a lower back injury.

“They took me in and I got on the right path,” said Allen, of Portland. “This works. I’m living proof that it works.”

Research shows that medication-assisted therapy, such as Suboxone and methadone, plus counseling has a 61 percent success rate after two years, compared to a 3 percent success rate for treatment without medication, according to a Maine Behavioral Healthcare news release.

Katie Fullam Harris, senior vice president of government relations for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, said while Medicaid expansion is helping, reimbursement rates for substance use treatment do not cover the cost, and this hampers access.

Medicaid reimbursement rates for Suboxone treatment cover about 50 percent to 60 percent of the cost, which is about  $4,000 to $7,000 per year, per patient, for outpatient programs.

A proposed 8 percent reimbursement rate increase for Suboxone was shelved in this year’s Maine legislative session, but Smith said the administration is expected to conduct a rate analysis and try again in 2020.

Maine Behavioral Healthcare has opened hubs in Rockland, Biddeford, Springvale and a partial hub in Farmington over the past three years, in addition to the new South Portland location.



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