A week after he said treatment for heroin addiction doesn’t work, it was encouraging to see Gov. Paul LePage join the region’s other governors in supporting increased access to an important addiction treatment drug.

Last Tuesday, all six New England governors, including LePage, sent a letter urging congressional leaders to pass legislation to increase access to buprenorphine, a drug used in opioid addiction treatment and known under the brand names Suboxone and Subutex.

“It is imperative that we remove barriers to treatment,” the governors said in letters to House and Senate leadership dated Dec. 15. “The health of our families, our communities and our economy rests on our ability to ensure men, women and children who are addicted to deadly drugs have every opportunity to turn their lives around.”

This sentiment is an important rhetorical change for LePage, who, at a town hall meeting in Portland on Dec. 8, was asked if drug treatment works. “Not with heroin,” LePage responded.

He went on to declare that 90 percent of heroin users eventually die as a result of their addiction. Indeed, a long-term study of heroin addicts found a premature death rate of 50 percent. But the same study also found treatment can work. Nearly half the survivors reported abstinence from heroin for five years or more.

Making buprenorphine more accessible is an important piece of Maine’s efforts to reduce drug addiction. The medication-assisted treatment can be an alternative to methadone and has several advantages, especially that it doesn’t require daily visits to a clinic as methadone does.

In fact, LePage and the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year sought to end state funding for methadone treatment for MaineCare recipients and replace it with buprenorphine. Lawmakers rejected the proposal amid concerns that not enough medical providers were ready and willing to treat thousands of new buprenorphine patients.

Doctors must undergo special training to prescribe buprenorphine, and the government limits the number of patients they can treat — 30 in the first year and up to 100 after that with a special waiver. The Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment, or TREAT, Act, which the New England governors urged congressional leaders to support, would allow approved practitioners to prescribe buprenorphine to treat 100 patients in the first year, after which the cap could be eliminated. It also would allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to provide treatment with the drug under the supervision of a qualified physician. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King are co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate. Rep. Chellie Pingree is a co-sponsor in the House.

It is unclear how many doctors in Maine are prescribing buprenorphine, but the number is likely not meeting the need.

In 2014, 336 Maine doctors had received the required license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. But another list maintained by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration counts about 140 physicians in Maine as buprenorphine prescribers.

Last year, a group of graduate students in the University of Maine’s social work program reached out to the physicians on the list. Forty-three confirmed they’re prescribing the medication, 42 confirmed they weren’t and 27 failed to respond. Two physicians on the list were deceased.

Clearly, a license to prescribe buprenorphine doesn’t equate to access for people who need it.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Janet Mills sent a letter to the state’s professional medical associations, asking them to encourage their eligible members to become buprenorphine prescribers.

Using Maine doctors’ existing capacity to prescribe a critical medication-assisted addiction treatment is a start. Congress should take the next step to ensure access for those who need it.

Avatar photo

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...