Bob Fowler, executive director of Milestone Recovery, will take over as the city’s director of public health on Aug. 17. File photo

PORTLAND — Bob Fowler says he can’t “imagine a more consequential time” to take on the role of the city’s director of public health.

After six years as executive director of Milestone Recovery, Fowler starts his new job next month, drawn to it, he said, by the opportunity to improve health conditions for the entire city. Portland-based Milestone offers shelter, detoxification, outreach and other services for men and women dealing with substance misuse.

“Bob is a skilled and respected leader in our community,” said Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health & Human Services Department. “I’m excited to have him on board to lead our public health efforts in Portland.”

He’ll start work as the city continues to work to slow the spread of COVID-19 and address homelessness and racial inequities and the recent spike in drug overdoses. The public health division is responsible for chronic disease and substance use prevention, family health, health equity and research, and infectious disease prevention and treatment. Its $2.09 million budget in fiscal 2020, which ran through June 30, represents approximately 2.2% of the $92.8 million municipal budget.

“It’s pretty remarkable the number of situations converging right now. I can’t imagine a more important or consequential time to be making this shift,” said Fowler. “It is a tough decision because I have tremendous regard for the work Milestone does.”

There has been seven fatal and 79 non-fatal overdoses since May 1, the city announced July 13. During that time, city workers have collected more than 1,000 needles on public property across the city. Over the last few weeks, Deering Oaks has seen an increase of people sleeping in the park and a rise in the number of overdoses and spent needles found there. Since July 12, there have been 13 overdoses in Deering Oaks, including six Sunday and over the last two months 244 needles were found in the park.

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“It is a complex problem,” Fowler said. “It’s an issue where the responsibility falls to the city, state and federal government. Access to care is an issue in all regards, but in this particular instance, access to substance use treatment is not where it needs to be.”

Statewide, there have been 127 drug-related deaths (114 by accidental overdose) in the first three months of 2020, a 23% increase over fourth quarter 2019, according to a report from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.

Fowler said another his other focal points will include mental health outreach and connecting with the homeless.
“It’s about creative outreach and finding ways to connect with people who may be less engaged with us than others. It’s a priority for the city and a priority for me,” he said.

Fowler originally wanted to be an electrician, but after deciding to pursue social work in college he has devoted his career to the health needs of those less fortunate. Prior to joining Portland-based Milestone in March 2014, Fowler worked at Sweetser and the Community Counseling Center and operated a private mental health and consulting practice.

When he starts his new job Aug. 17 he will in many ways continue the work he has been doing for years, he said.

“In Portland, a real positive attribute we have is a really collaborative group of providers. We work really closely together, which isn’t the case in other communities across the country. A lot of the things I have been working on I will continue, just from a slightly different perspective,” Fowler said.

Fowler succeeds Bridget Rauscher and Alex Hughes, who have been co-interim directors of the public health division since the previous director, Dr. Kolawole Bankole, left in December 2019 after close to three years in the role.

Mike Miles, president of the Milestone Recovery Board of Directors, said Fowler will be “sorely missed.”

“He took over an organization that was in pretty rough shape and he’s done nothing less than a remarkable job,” Miles said.

Mile said applications will be collecting through Aug. 14 and the hope is to have a new director in place by the end of September or early October.

“I am confident that we will find someone who can step in and can continue the good work (Fowler’s) done,” Miles said.

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