BAR HARBOR — The federal government can and should do more to help stem the nation’s opioid addiction crisis, U.S. Sen. Angus King said at a forum at Mount Desert Island High School Tuesday afternoon.
The military’s inability to stop more than a small percentage of illegal drug shipments into the country is part of the problem. King recalled a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee at which the head of the military’s South American command testified.
“He said we have the intelligence to identify ships coming to the United States with drugs, but we only have the ships and personnel to intercept 25 percent of them,” King said.
“That is, to me, inexcusable. That’s just a question of putting your money where it will do some good.”
As for law enforcement, he said, “We’ve got some policies that I think are inimical to the solution of the problem.”
For example, he said, county jails have become “de facto detox centers,” but aren’t able to provide adequate treatment because “Medicaid stops at the jailhouse door.”
“So, you have somebody with a drug abuse problem and a mental health problem, and they commit a crime and are in jail, where there is some opportunity to help them, but there are no resources to do so.”
King said the Medicare Coverage for Addiction Recovery Expansion (CARE) Act, which Congress passed last year, was supposed to address that deficiency. But very little money was allocated to accomplish what the act intended.
“We finally did get some additional funding, but now we are facing budget proposals that would cut it again,” he said. “I think the test will be the budget that we’re supposed to be adopting this fall. We’ll see whether these programs are adequately funded.
“I wish I could say we’re going to take care of it. I’d say it’s 50-50 that we’ll be able to do something more than is being done now.”
King said lack of adequate funding for addiction recovery programs is “fiscally imprudent, given the cost of even one life lost.”
He suggested that the overprescribing of opioids by physicians is a significant part of the addiction problem.
“Four out of five heroin addicts started with prescription drugs,” he said. “There are entirely too many out there; the numbers are preposterous. Prescribing practices of the medical community have to contribute to the solution.”
The forum of opioid addiction in which King took part was organized by Acadia Family Center in Southwest Harbor, which provides education, prevention and outpatient treatment services for people with alcohol, drug abuse and mental health disorders.
Also speaking at the forum were Dan Johnson, executive director of Acadia Family Center, and Vivek Kumar, an addiction research scientist at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.
Kumar said an estimated 60,000 Americans died of drug overdose in 2016 and that Maine had the 13th highest drug overdose death rate in the country.
“The current opioid crisis is a convergence of poor prescription policies, aggressive advertising by pharmaceutical industries, a health care system that does not provide adequate treatment options to addicts and a society that still views addiction as a moral failure rather than a chronic disease,” Kumar said.
King also talked about the need to change that attitude.
“Many of us have the impression that if people are addicted, it’s their fault, they’re making a choice, they’re bad people,” he said. “That’s just not true. We know people who have fallen into this, and they’re not bad people. We’ve got to treat them as people with a chronic disease that we can deal with instead of further stigmatizing them.”
King said improvements that can be made in treatment, law enforcement and illegal drug interdiction are known, but prevention is a different matter. He said prevention is the ultimate solution, but most of the approaches that have been tried so far have not been very effective, citing the DARE program and “shock films.”
“The one thing I haven’t found any good answers for is prevention,” he said. “It’s the one piece that hasn’t been adequately addressed.
“The only solution in the end, the final piece after interdiction, enforcement, prevention and treatment, is community, compassion and love.”