Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems' main office in Brewer. Credit: Courtesy EMHS

Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems says it is ending partnerships with Bangor and Portland after the two cities moved to file lawsuits accusing it and national pharmaceutical manufacturers of playing a key role in the opioid crisis.

EMHS said in a Thursday news release it decided to take the action because of concern that some physicians, formerly employed by EMHS member organizations, “could be named in the suit as a legal tactic to keep the cases in Maine state courts.”

Portland has named two former EMHS doctors in its $1 billion lawsuit and Bangor, which hasn’t yet filed its lawsuit, is expected to. One of the doctors who formerly worked for an EMHS organization named in Portland’s suit is Mark E. Cieniawski, M.D., of Portland.

“We wish them well in their lawsuit against pharma manufacturers and distributors but are disheartened by the inclusion of Maine physicians, which puts in peril all the good work we were doing with our valued partners to address the opioid abuse epidemic,” EMHS said in the release.

Suzanne Spruce, chief communications officer for EMHS, said on Thursday the organization was “extremely disheartened with the entire situation” and “shocked” when it learned what was happening. “We spent some time trying to gather our information, to process what was happening and came to the realization that this is what we had to do,” she said.

In addition to ending partnerships with the Community Health Leadership Board in Bangor and the Greater Portland Addiction Collaborative — two groups made up of community leaders who have worked mitigate the opioid crisis by making Narcan more available, reestablishing drug court and putting grant money to use by offering social detox programs — EMHS is also likely to end partnerships with other Maine communities that have joined the litigation, which include Waterville and Lewiston, it said.

Opioid overdoses kill Mainers at a rate of about one per day. Bangor and Portland contend that there is a direct link between the nation’s drug abuse epidemic and drug makers marketing prescription opioids.

In the last six months, Bangor and Portland city councilors voted to join dozens of municipalities and counties across the country and file suits against big pharma manufacturers and distributors. Last June, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills joined attorneys general from nearly 40 other states to investigate the practices of opioid manufacturers. Other Maine cities, including Waterville and Lewiston, also elected to take up litigation.

Portland officially filed its lawsuit in April and names 26 defendants, including Cieniawski, who was fined $1,000 and his medical license was placed on two years of probation in April 2017 by the Maine physician licensing board for excessively prescribing controlled substances. The lawsuit also lists individual drug companies and doctors, such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson. The city alleges negligence, negligent marking, fraud and a violation of Maine’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Bangor has yet to file its suit, according to City Manager Cathy Conlow, who said the city is “very disappointed” in the termination of its partnership with EMHS. “We found them productive and we made progress in tackling some difficult issues, and we will be disappointed to see those end,” she said.

Brewer-based EMHS, formerly known as Eastern Maine Healthcare, partners with health care providers across the state, including Maine Medical Center and Acadia Hospital in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland.

“We will vigorously defend ourselves against these baseless allegations at the appropriate time and place. While we recognize that the terrible opioid abuse epidemic will require strong community partnerships, we have no choice but to withdraw from initiatives where participants include cities and counties that are suing us,” EMHS said.

Bangor City Council Chairman Ben Sprague said he planned to step down from the board of Eastern Maine Medical Center, which is a member of the EMHS system. He cited “inherent and irreconcilable conflicts of interest,” fueled by the ongoing litigation.

“I think the city of Bangor and the hospital system need to be allies and partners in the opioid epidemic,” said Sprague.

Portland spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said that the city has no comment on the announcement.

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