AUGUSTA, Maine — With a bill he submitted earlier this month, Gov. Paul LePage signaled that he wants to take Maine’s war on drug abuse to the womb.
LePage on May 2 submitted LD 1556, which would expand who is mandated to report child abuse to the Department of Health and Human Services and require all mandated reporters to report when “they know or suspect substance abuse by a woman during her pregnancy.”
The mandated reporting would apply even if the drugs are prescribed as part of a recovery program. Advocates and addiction treatment professionals say the change would scare away mothers-to-be, potentially causing them to avoid both prenatal and substance abuse care.
The bill is intended to get pregnant woman into recovery programs, the governor says, but it also means prenatal drug or alcohol exposure could provide the grounds for terminating parental rights.
The bill was referred to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which held a May 8 hearing at which members of the Maine Medical Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Maine Hospital Association and others spoke against the measure.
LePage senior policy adviser David Sorensen spoke in favor. A work session is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday.
“It will have a chilling effect on those seeking treatment, and if there is one person we want seeking treatment — it’s a pregnant woman,” Gordon Smith, Maine Medical Association’s executive vice president, said Tuesday.
Evidence shows that punitive measures drive pregnant women struggling with substance use disorder away from seeking prenatal care, Oami Amarasingham, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, told the committee.
The problem with the proposed legislation is that it “broadens who is mandated to report to just about everybody in the world” and could create a system of “vigilante” reporting or mistaken reporting, Smith said.
“A mandatory reporter could see a woman having a glass of wine and report her because they might think she could be pregnant — that is not a good idea,” he said. “It should not be mandated.”
LePage said May 8 on a WVOM radio show that his bill is “about trying to get control of this opioid problem.” More than one person a day died by drug overdoses in Maine last year, with opioid use linked to 313 of the 376 deaths.
“In the last four or five years so many kids have been born afflicted with drugs and now they’re starting school and the schools are telling us their problems didn’t go away when you detox them — they’re life-long problems,” LePage said.
Nearly one out of every 10 babies born in Maine last year was born drug-a ff ected. There were 165 babies exposed to drugs or alcohol during pregnancy in 2005, and in 2016 that number had grown to 1,024.
“If you’re abusing drugs, if you’re abusing alcohol when you are pregnant, we have to do something. We have to work with you. We have to get you off them,” LePage said.
Paul Trovarello, director of the ARISE Addiction Recovery in Calais, a small community of around 3,000 that has been hard hit by drug abuse and addiction, said he thinks the bill could help.
“Last year, we had 10 drug overdose funerals — two that were for 9-month-old or younger infants” born drug-affected, Trovarello said Tuesday. “The oldest person was only 44.”
The infants were being weaned off drugs they were exposed to in the womb when they died from complications, he said.
“We’ve seen the effects,” Trovarello said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The proposed legislation also adds substance abuse addiction treatment providers to the list of mandated reporters, which would mean all pregnant women on methadone, Suboxone or once-a-month Vivitrol, the brand name for naltrexone, would automatically be reported.
“I would rather see the state provide substance abuse treatment for those who need it,” said Mark Moran, a licensed social worker who leads Eastern Maine Medical Center’s family service and support team. “If we really want to help, eliminate the barriers for those who want access to care.”
Moran said that integrating treatment with prenatal care has been shown to work better than threats.
If enacted, Maine would be the 24th state to consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse and require mandated reporting, according to the Guttmacher Institute.