The Star-Herald

Maine voices driving opioid legislation in Washington

Part of my responsibility as one of Maine’s senators is to regularly travel across Maine and hear from people who live in every corner of our state. I hear about their achievements, their successes, their work to improve their communities — and far too often, I hear about their heartbreaks, particularly those related to the opioid epidemic.

I’ve met with Maine people in recovery, family members of those struggling with substance use disorders, treatment providers, and law enforcement officials to learn about their experiences with this terrible disease. Each of these groups has offered unique insights on the challenges opioids pose to our state, but in each of these individual perspectives there has been one common thread: everyone agrees that in order to fully respond to these problems, we need a stronger federal effort to end the opioid epidemic.

These stories from Maine people have stuck with me — from the sheriff who lost his daughter to opioids and talked about the need for increased access to treatment, to the medical providers who worry that this epidemic is growing rapidly while their resources are not, to the people in recovery who are living proof that treatment can work. These stories, shared with me at roundtables and meetings across the state, have motivated me to keep fighting for a more aggressive response to this epidemic — and as I was fighting, I shared these stories with my Senate colleagues so they would understand the human impact this epidemic was having on Maine people.

We’re talking about a disease that kills more than one person per day in Maine — hundreds of lives lost every year, leaving holes in families, friends, and communities. I’ve pushed and pushed on this issue, and I’m glad to share a positive update. Earlier this month, the Senate passed a sweeping, bipartisan bill to help the families and communities affected by this crisis. I was proud to vote for this legislation, which included a number of provisions I introduced and worked on based on conversations I’ve had with Maine people.

One of these provisions I advocated for was the permanent expansion of the base of opioid treatment providers allowed to prescribe medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Throughout my conversations about how to respond to the opioid epidemic, I’ve regularly heard that MAT is among the most effective treatments to help people enter recovery — and at the same time, I’ve also heard that there are not enough providers to administer this life-saving treatment.

The solution to this problem is right in front of us: empowering nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, who are the unsung heroes of our healthcare system. These men and women are ready, willing, and more than able to make a difference in the lives of Maine people struggling with substance use disorders. When this provision was not included as part of the original legislation, I took to the Senate floor to advocate for its addition to the final version – and it worked! This is a major win for our talented medical professionals who will now have the tools they need to do their job, and for the patients across Maine who will have increased access the care they need.

Also included in this opioid legislation were major pieces of the CRIB Act, a bipartisan bill I’ve introduced to help newborn babies suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Approximately 1 in every 12 babies born in Maine enters this world with drugs in their system — 1 in 12. That is a heartbreaking statistic, and one we can’t accept without a strong response. This provision of the CRIB Act would allow Medicaid to recognize residential pediatric recovery facilities as providers, making sure that children have access to the specialized care they need to develop and lead healthy lives. The bill will make our children healthier, our families stronger, and won’t cost the taxpayers any additional money — it’s a no-brainer, and a major victory for communities across Maine.

These are just a couple of the important provisions in this month’s sweeping opioid legislation; for example, the legislation also includes language to help catch illegal drugs being sent through the mail, reauthorize grant programs to help states and tribes respond to the opioid epidemic, and remove an arbitrary limit that prevented residential treatment facilities from expanding their efforts to save lives. These are all important components in the fight to increase the availability of treatment, crack down on drug trafficking, and support those who need help, but there is so much more work to be done.

This isn’t about partisanship. It’s about supporting our friends, neighbors, and loved ones who need our help. It requires all hands on deck, and I’ll keep fighting — both in Washington and on the ground, side-by-side with Maine people — to end this scourge that is hurting Maine people, families, and communities.

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