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Maine Substance Abuse Treatment Programs Facing Budget Ax
03/09/2011   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Substance abuse treatment providers in Maine are warning that the state's network of residential treatment programs will be gutted if the governor's proposed cuts to the state Office of Substance Abuse are approved. Ten of 13 residential treatment centers say they may have to close their doors. And the cuts are looming at a time when Maine leads the nation in the rate of opiate addicts seeking treatment.

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Until recently, providers and advocates worried about access to treatment and recovery. That's because there hasn't been enough money or enough programs to keep up with demand. But now, they say, the situation is dire: A new federal report says Maine has a rate of addiction eight times higher than the rest of the nation. And the governor has proposed cutting $5.6 million dollars from substance abuse treatment programs.

Crossroads for Women, which runs short and long-term residential treatment programs in Windham and Portland says it would cease operations. So would Wellspring, with programs for men and women in Bangor, and so would Serenity House in Portland.

"It's the classic pennywise-pound foolish, because we treat people at less than half the cost of the corrections community," says Roger Prince, the board chairman of Serenity House, which has been treating men for alcohol and drug addiction for more than 40 years.

Here, men ages 18 and up are provided drug and alcohol counseling, meals and housing for six weeks at a time at a cost of about $50 a day. There are just 33 beds and a waiting list of 50 more names. Many of the residents come straight out of jail and are pursuing treatment as a condition of probation. If they lapse back into using--and there is regular, random drug testing--they can be sent straight back to jail where the rate of recidivism after release is high.

"So what do we want to do? Do we want to close this place down and send them back to jail or to the emergency room? It makes no sense to me," Prince says.

What does make sense to the men in this program is to learn life skills that will help them fend off the demons that got them in trouble in the first place and help them find a way to be productive, tax-paying members of society.

"I've dealt with my addiction for about seven years," says resident Josh Stone. "I was getting into a lot of trouble. I was homeless. I had no place to live, staying at the shelters. I got into some legal trouble because of my addiction and I ended up in a little stay at the Cumberland County Jail, and actually someone came in from Serenity House to screen me."

Stone is 26 years old. He's an opiate addict who says he committed robberies to feed his addiction. He's been at Serenity House for about three weeks and says he feels better right now than he has in years. "If I wasn't here I would probably still be locked up but I'd be locked up and waiting to get out and to live the same lifestyle I was living before."

Of the six residents interviewed for this story, all six say they have been homeless and/or engaged in criminal activity in connection with their addictions. Twenty-three-year-old Anthony Carter is also here after a stay with the Department of Corrections. He's on probation for related drug possession charges and describes himself as a heroin and cocaine addict who got no treatment in jail.

"What's good about this is you're still part of the community. You're allowed to leave the house and go out and volunteer if you want to," Carter says. "After a certain amount of time you can go out and get a job and learn how to work without using. I never knew that volunteer work could make you feel good. I did some volunteer work on Sunday and I felt amazing to be able to help somebody else."

Because he gets finanical assistance, Carter says there's no way he could afford to pay for treatment on his own. And that's the case for many of the residents, who are required to work to pay off their bills. Program administrators say it's a good investment considering that treatment and recovery decreases homelessness and arrest rates, reunifies some families and keeps most of these men in sobriety.

"We are by no mean suggesting that these are cuts that are not going to have an impact. We certainly recognize that we are having to make some difficult choices in this biennial budget," says Mary Mayhew, the commissioner for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

"With regard to many of the substance abuse treatment programs, though, we are looking at how can we ensure that the resources that are devoted to those programs are achieving the best outcomes for the individuals seeking treatment," Mayhew says.

Bob Dawber, executive director of Serenity House, says the contracts it has with the Maine Office of Substance Abuse are already directly tied to program outcomes. And he says if the equivalent of 10 Serenity House programs are lost throughout the state--and all have waiting lists of at least 50 people and treat 30 or so at a time--the state will very shortly find itself with a bottleneck of 800-plus people who are addicted with no place to go.

The Legislature's Appropriations Committee will take up funding for substance abuse treatment at a hearing on Friday.


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