Gov. Mills announces grant program to expand substance use disorder treatment in rural areas

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Aug. 31—Gov. Janet Mills' administration announced Wednesday a $1.9 million grant program to increase behavioral health care for substance use disorder treatment in rural parts of the state.

The initiative will provide funding for behavioral health providers to "invest in start-up costs, such as staff training and development," according to the announcement.

The program is federally funded, and grants will be awarded by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services but there were no other details immediately available Wednesday.

"Maine is within the crushing grip of an unrelenting epidemic, worsened by the effects of the pandemic and the increased presence of highly lethal fentanyl," Mills said in a prepared statement.

"It's killing a record number of Maine people — people who are our family, friends and neighbors," Mills said.

Maine is on par to have just as deadly a year as in 2021, according to the latest monthly overdose report from the University of Maine and the Office of the Maine Attorney General published in early August.

There were 329 Mainers who died of a drug-related overdose during the first six months of this year, the report said. In 2021, there were 631 drug-related deaths, a 25% increase compared to the 504 deaths in 2020, which was already a 33% increase from the year prior.

"The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the challenge of addressing substance use disorders in rural Maine, increasing stress on Maine people while straining the already challenged behavioral health workforce," DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement.

A report from the University of Vermont and the University of Southern Maine published in May highlights the challenges to medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders in rural Maine.

A lack of reliable transportation and other community supports were among the top concerns from the more than 300 practitioners and community stakeholders that were surveyed.

One respondent said Maine needs more providers and facilities throughout the state.

"The wait lists are long, and we lose many people during the short window after they decide to enter recovery."

This is the latest initiative from the Mills administration aimed at improving access to substance use disorder treatment and prevention and increasing access to rural health care.

In July, the governor announced a $1.6 million grant program to expand or develop medical residency programs and clinical training programs in underserved areas. It will also offer funding for rural practices to hire qualified clinical supervisors and other supports, such as housing, to expand their clinical rotation programs.

Community health clinics, including Federally Qualified Health Centers, are lifelines in many rural Maine communities that are otherwise underserved and offer primary, behavioral health care and dental care among other services.

In some parts of the state, a Federally Qualified Health Center is the only source of medical care for miles. But rural health centers have historically struggled to recruit and retain health care professionals, Edward Molleo, director of communications and outreach for Waterville-based HealthReach Community Health Centers, told the Sun Journal in July.

Along with this grant program, Mills also announced that the state will increase its purchase of the overdose-reversing medication naloxone by 36% this fiscal year compared to last fiscal year.

"Saturating communities with the opioid overdose reversal agent naloxone is one of the most effective public health interventions to prevent overdose death," the release said.

From May to June this year, the state more than doubled the amount of naloxone doses it distributed, from 9,024 doses in May to 19,237 in June.