Maine will receive $130 million over 18 years as part of a national settlement agreement with manufacturers and distributors of addictive  prescription painkillers whose practices contributed to a long-running and deadly opioid epidemic.

Attorney General Aaron Frey announced the deal on Friday, although the initial terms were agreed to in August. The money will be used primarily to expand treatment and prevention efforts at the state and local levels. Some of the money will be shared with municipalities, counties and school districts across the state.

“At a time when Mainers continue to suffer from the pain and loss inflicted by the opioid epidemic, this agreement and the settlement it secures represents a significant opportunity to confront the crisis head on,” Frey said in a statement. “This agreement paves the way for Maine to receive significant resources, starting this year, to be specifically directed at tackling the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our state. These resources will be deployed to address this crisis, provide necessary treatment for addiction, and save lives.”

Last year, an estimated 636 Mainers died from overdoses, shattering the previous record set in 2020. In the last five years, 2,292 individuals have lost their lives, many attributed to the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which was present in 77 percent of all overdose deaths last year.

The number of deaths might be even higher if not for the increased availability and distribution of naloxone, or Narcan, which reverses the effects of an overdose when administered in a timely manner.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the opioid epidemic by contributing to isolation and uncertainty for many who struggle with substance use disorder.

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And that’s not unique to Maine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that there were roughly 101,000 fatal overdoses for the 12 months ending in June 2021 – a nearly 21 percent increase over the previous 12 months.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, the settlement money will be distributed as follows: 20 percent will go to the state to be used for initiatives that address the epidemic; 30 percent will be split among 39 Maine counties and municipalities that either filed litigation against the settling companies or that have more than 10,000 residents (there are 22 such cities and towns in Maine); and 50 percent “will go to a Maine Recovery Fund that will be disbursed by a Recovery Council comprised of stakeholders who will make decisions on how best to maximize the impact of the funds on mitigating the opioid epidemic.”

That council, which will include lawmakers, members of the recovery community and others, will have broad discretion on how to spend the funds, although at least 3 percent of the funds must address abatement in special education programs.

School districts that joined the lawsuit will be permitted to apply for grants to address the epidemic, including hiring additional staff or partnering with local service providers.

Distribution of the settlement funds to Maine is expected to begin as soon as April.

“Maine people have suffered and lost their lives at the hands of companies that peddled dangerously addictive opioids to boost their profits and bottom lines,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. “I applaud the attorney general for his work to hold them accountable and to reach an agreement with cities, counties and school districts across Maine to govern the funds’ distribution.”

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‘GREAT NEWS’

Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee, called the settlement “great news for the state of Maine and for those folks who are struggling with substance use disorders.”

“Now we can, collectively, get down to business to make sure the monies are spent to provide the resources so badly needed across the state to fight this epidemic,” Moore added.

Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said her county, Washington, was one of the first in the nation to see the devastating effects of predatory opioid prescribing practices.

“Our communities have been devastated by the way Big Pharma overprescribed and oversold opioids, and got our loved ones addicted to such a dangerous substance,” she said. “While nothing will ever bring back the lives of those we lost to opioid overdoses, I am glad these settlement funds will be put towards supporting those most affected.”

The new Recovery Fund could be similar to the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which was established in 1998 with Maine’s share of the landmark national tobacco settlement – about $40 million annually – and still exists today to fund prevention and public health initiatives. Some, however, have argued that the fund is not being used as intended.

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Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services of Maine, said she’s pleased to see the attorney general include strong oversight of the funds. But she said what’s happened with the Fund for Healthy Maine is a good warning. Those funds for treatment and prevention have eroded over the years because money was often used to plug budget holes elsewhere.

“I don’t think that there was less of a need to fund programs that were specific to the original intent, but the parties involved had moved on and others came in with no memory,” she said.

Shaughnessy also said that although $130 million seems like a lot, and it is, it works out to about $7.2 million each year.

“It’s substantial, but compared to the need it’s not as big a game-changer as it might seem to be,” she said. “It is not going to let us fundamentally change the system. It will let us again take care of some of the edges that are in crisis.”

MORE HELP NEEDED

Shaughnessy said her members worry that this money might signal to some lawmakers that they don’t need to fund treatment and prevention with general fund dollars as well. She hopes the money is targeted to those with the greatest need, especially those struggling to find housing.

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“You can’t sustain recovery if you’re couch-surfing or homeless,” she said.

Additionally, Shaughnessy said the state would be wise to invest in case management services for individuals on MaineCare. Outpatient treatment alone often isn’t enough.

Courtney Allen, policy director for the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project – which formed in 2020 to give a stronger voice in policy discussions to those in recovery – applauded the announcement but echoed Shaughnessy’s concerns.

She said she’s most pleased that the Recovery Council will include three voices of people in recovery or who have been personally affected by the epidemic.

“I think a lot of people are celebrating this as a win, but in the long haul we need deep investments and this alone won’t cut it,” she said.

Allen said her biggest priorities would be adding medical detox beds and investing in recovery organizations across the state that have been operating on shoestring budgets.

The $130 million announced Friday comes from a settlement with opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and three opioid distributors, Cardinal, McKesson and Amerisource Bergen.

Maine also is expected to receive another $20 million over nine years from the settlement fund set up by Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, which many health experts believe played a major role in the epidemic because it exposed a generation to powerful and highly addictive legal drugs. When health care providers began tightening prescription practices, it created an illegal market for prescription opioids, which gave way to heroin and now fentanyl.

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