RADIO ADDRESS: Mainers look out for Mainers. And with this devastating disease, it is no different

Posted: May 04, 2018 | Senator Gratwick, Weekly Radio Address

Few statistics are as staggering as that of the opioid epidemic. It is a crisis that in the last year and a half has claimed more lives than the entire Vietnam War. In 2016, alone, more than 42,000 Americans died from an opioid-related overdose – at a cost to the country of $504 billion dollars.

The reality is, however, these statistics will only worsen by our failure to act.

Hi, this is Senator Geoff Gratwick from Bangor. Thanks for tuning in.

Fortunately, the news is not all bad. We know that treatment works. I have seen first-hand what happens when individuals get the care they need to turn their life around.

Just the other day I was at a community college gathering and met a man in his late 30s, earning a degree in a complex technical field way beyond my understanding. He has plans to attend the University of Maine, remain in the state to work and start a family. However, he would not be where he is today without access to health care and recovery programs. For almost ten years, he struggled with substance use disorder, which almost destroyed his life. Yet here he is today, drug-free for five years. People with substance use disorder can get better with the proper care and become productive workers, active participants in their community members and wonderful citizens.

I have been a physician in Bangor for forty years. Last year, I spent nine months serving on the Legislature’s Opioid Task Force seeking to better understand this disease alongside several of my legislative colleagues and an impressive slate of experts. What the Task Force concluded is that we need to attack this issue from all sides. Maine needs to employ aggressive strategies in the areas of prevention, of treatment and of law enforcement if we are to make meaningful progress.

The reality is that chronic opioid use changes the way your brain works. Your normal pathways do not function anymore; they are only focused on getting more opioids. It is as if whenever you see food, you have to eat it, whether it be a snack at home or all the food in the supermarket; you have to eat it all and keep eating, regardless of the consequences. Once you are on opioids your brain requires you to have more. That’s what substance use disorder is – it is a disease of a changed brain.

 While the Task Force produced good work, the time for studying the situation is over. The latest numbers are in and it is now well past time for the Legislature to act. In 2017, 418 Mainers died from an opioid-related overdose, this is up from the previous year, and emergency room visits for overdoses were up 34 percent. That is certainly not the sign that we are close to solving this crisis.

The Legislature had an opportunity – and indeed a profound responsibility – to act but was thwarted by House Republicans. Currently, there are a number of bills from the Task Force that remain in limbo.

For example, the Legislature was considering a bill that would establish a resource and referral system, which uses ‘hub and spoke’ model, to improve access to care.

The Legislature was also considering two bills which would ensure that Mainers in recovery have a safe place to do just that – recover. A huge barrier to a successful recovery is that too many Mainers don’t have a safe place to lay their head.

Finally, the Legislature passed a bill to establish a new Veterans Treatment Court in Androscoggin County but is waiting on funding.

Lawmakers did take some positive action, however, on the opioid crisis. We increased the availability of Narcan, lifesaving, anti-overdose medicine, despite the governor’s vetoes. We need to do much more.

The opioid crisis is paralyzing our economy and the future of our state. Every death due to a drug overdose is one too many. People are frustrated with what’s happening in Augusta and quite frankly, I don’t blame them. So hold lawmakers accountable – tell them that addressing the opioid crisis is a priority.

In Maine, we look out for each other – it is just what we do. We need to implement a smart, aggressive strategy to end the opioid epidemic. It’s good for our children, it’s good for our communities and it’s good for our economy. It’s also the right thing to do.

This is Senator Geoff Gratwick, thanks for listening.