Anne Hazlett, Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development, speaks to reporters in Bangor Monday when she met with state and local leaders working on the front lines of Maine's opioid crisis. The top USDA official moderated a discussion with 16 panelists at the Gracie Theater at Husson University. Credit: Callie Ferguson

A top U.S. Department of Agriculture official wrapped up her five-state tour of rural places hit hardest by the opioid epidemic in Bangor, where on Monday she heard reports that Maine is still grasping for ways to battle the deadly crisis.

Anne Hazlett, assistant to the USDA’s Secretary for Rural Development, moderated a discussion with 16 state and local officials before an audience of 150 at the Gracie Theater at Husson University. The panel included Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Leigh Saufley, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Hazlett said she chose Maine as a place to gather ground-level feedback because of its many isolated and remote communities. Rural areas are often ill-equipped with the resources and infrastructure to stop addiction, she said. The rate of fatal overdoses in rural communities also has surpassed that of urban areas, the the Center for Disease Control reported last year. Maine had a record 418 fatal overdoses in 2017, according to state data.

On Monday, panelists repeated calls for a nonpunitive approach to confronting drug use and reiterated the need for more treatment options, prevention programs and recovery beds. Along those lines, they described strategies that might work — or appear to be working — in Maine, but that have failed to receive enough backing to put a dent in the death toll.

“These are not new things that people are mentioning. We’re just not doing it,” said Dr. Trip Gardner, Chief Psychiatric Officer at Penobscot Community Health Care.

But Hazlett hopes those ideas might be new — or worthwhile — to communities elsewhere. The feedback she heard Monday will inform the agency’s future programs, she said, and be passed along to other federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice. Since March, Hazlett has also visited Pennsylvania, Utah, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.