“Bangor’s Burden” Part 1: Addiction Treatment Controversy 

Bangor is home to three opiate addiction treatment clinics. Hundreds come to the Queen City, every day, seeking help through medication and therapy. These plans are both controversial and costly.

Methadone is a medication, prescribed to help addicts avoid painful feelings of withdrawal and stay on the road to recovery. Current law requires methadone be issued at a certified clinic. In 2008, city officials accepted an ordinance banning new ones.  Many local leaders believe former patients are responsible for an uptick in crime. That’s why they’d like to see the state allow other healthcare providers to prescribe methadone, as well as a different drug; suboxone.

Right now, suboxone can be prescribed by a doctor, picked up a pharmacy, and administered in the privacy of one’s home. City councilors say this would help addicts find treatment in their own communities, and avoid traveling to Bangor for their daily dose.

When it comes to failed treatment for drug addiction, City Council Chair Ben Sprague says that Bangor has carried a burden of cost and crime for too long. “Treatment is certainly better than being on hard drugs but we can’t take care of everyone. It is just not financially realistic.”

Methadone and suboxone are expensive. Many patients rely on Mainecare to cover the cost. Without insurance, a patient could spend upwards of $400 a month on treatment. In 2012, coverage for methadone, under the state program, was capped at 2-years. A similar measure was just passed for suboxone.

“If tomorrow I get shut off my Mainecare, then I don’t have my suboxone and my prescription anymore, slowly all of that stuff that I just built up is going to start crumbling down and quickly,” said Roger Meserve, a recovering addict.

Patients can apply for extensions but the cost of treatment, for many, could become the city’s responsibility, as patients seek help staying well though general assistance aid.

“The burdens are going to absolutely affect the Bangor residential property taxpayers that are covering general assistance through their taxes,” said council chair Sprague.

Roger Meserve is trying to stay clean. For years he was hooked on prescription painkillers. Now he takes suboxone. He says the drug keeps him from using. He says the stigma of relying on government assistance can be overwhelming, “It just felt like a leach. You know? Sucking down the state’s medication, sucking down the federal government’s money, not moving nowhere, not doing nothing.”

Denise Brooker is the nursing supervisor for the suboxone program at Bangor’s Discovery House. “This is for people that are further along, probably working and going to school or doing stuff and they maybe have not used as long because this is more for people that have been using for a year or less,” she said, describing suboxone.

In November, the city council passed a 180 day moratorium on suboxone treatment. In that time, no facility will be allowed to expand its use of the drug. Councilor Gibran Graham voted against the measure. He said, “I don’t think anybody wants to keep people from that help but I think that there’s just that general concern of, well, can’t they get the help somewhere else?”

Now he’s organizing a committee to discuss issues related to addiction treatment with law enforcement, healthcare providers, addiction experts, and other counselors.

“The biggest problem are those who relapse. They drop out of the program, for whatever reason, but they are still addicted and they still live in Bangor,” said city councilor Pauline Civiello.

“There is some suggestion that some of their clients, who may be are longer in treatment might be responsible for some of our thefts and our burglaries,” said Police Chief Mark Hathaway. He is asking his officers to engage suspected criminals in conversation. He hopes to gather data to substantiate the claim that drug use is driving users to commit crimes. “We have every reason to think that it is but I’d like to have something that I can show you that either says it is or says that it is not,” said Hathaway.

“You, you know, would rob your own baby if your baby had an account set up lights in your own child’s name. There is not limit. I’ve never seen anybody draw a line and say well I am going to be a junkie but this is all I’m gonna do,” said Meserve.

Roger says he gets more than just medication at Discovery House. He credits his new lifestyle to intense counseling and group therapy. Possibly the hardest part for he and other addicts is severing social connections linked to addiction, “There’s people out there that would take a bullet for me and that I would do the same for that I haven’t had in my life for well over a year because they’re not in the environment that I want to be in.”

Last week the Maine House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would allow federally qualified health centers to provide methadone and Suboxone treatment.