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This week’s edition!

A Public Health Crisis within a Public Health Crisis

Guest Essay

By U.S. Sen. Collins

As we continue to respond to COVID-19, we must not forget another public health emergency our country faces—the opioid epidemic.  Last year, 504 Mainers died from drug overdoses, a 33 percent increase from 2019.  This heartbreaking record exceeded the roughly 400 deaths caused by COVID-19 in 2020 in our state.

 This tragedy is unfolding across the country, and no community is immune.  According to data just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an unprecedented 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year.

 The skyrocketing number of overdose deaths is one reason that U.S. life expectancy recently fell by 1.5 years, the biggest drop in a generation.  The opioid crisis has been exacerbated by stress and isolation caused by the pandemic.  In addition, COVID created challenges in accessing prevention and treatment services and impeded recovery resources, like peer support programs.

I recently co-led a hearing on the alarming decrease in Americans’ longevity, which has been fueled by COVID and its consequences.  I invited Robert MacKenzie, a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the Chief of Police for the Kennebunk Police Department, to testify.  Chief MacKenzie spoke about the impact the opioid crisis has had on his community as well as on his own family.  He also discussed his impressive efforts through the Kennebunk Police Department and Rotary International to expand treatment resources and peer support groups.

U.S. Senator Susan M. Collins (R-ME) is one of Maine’s two United States Senators. She is working to address the opioid epidemic that is impacting the U.S. life expectancy. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Sen. Collins)

Chief MacKenzie explained that one of his priorities has been to reduce the stigma surrounding opioid use in order to encourage those who are struggling with addiction to get help.  In collaboration with the Kennebunk Rotarians, he has spearheaded several fundraising efforts to support recovery coaches as well as instructors who can teach school officials, law enforcement officers, and community members how to identify and assist at-risk community members.  Chief MacKenzie has also partnered with local organizations to provide families with the information and resources they need to assist a loved one with substance use disorder.

I have long supported a comprehensive, all-of-the-above approach to respond to the opioid crisis.  Given the sharp increase in overdose deaths, it is imperative that we redouble our efforts to combat this longstanding public health emergency. 

One component of that approach is addressed in bipartisan legislation I introduced that would ensure that all health care professionals who prescribe controlled substances, such as highly addictive opioids, are also equipped with the tools and training they need to prevent, identify, and treat addiction. 

More than 20 million adults in the United States live with an opioid use or substance use disorder. More than half a million misuse prescription pain relievers.  Yet according to a recent national survey, only one in four providers surveyed had received training on addiction during their medical education. The Medication Access and Training Expansion (MATE) Act would increase health care providers’ access to evidence-based addiction prevention and treatment knowledge, a critical component of supporting those in need and ultimately tackling this crisis. 

Another bill I have recently introduced would help hospitals hire and train more doctors in addiction medicine, addiction psychiatry, and pain management.  The bipartisan Opioid Workforce Act would create 1,000 new medical residency positions specific to addiction at teaching hospitals in Maine and across the country.

Our country was already facing a shortage of physicians trained in addiction medicine, addiction psychiatry, and pain management before the pandemic began, and the ongoing public health crisis has only increased demand for treatment services.  In Maine, there is only one addiction medicine program.  This bill would help improve resources by expanding the number of these specialists and creating new residency programs in our state and nationwide.

As a member of the Senate Health and Appropriations Committees, I am dedicated to providing Mainers and our communities with the treatment and resources they need to tackle the opioid epidemic. We need a multipronged strategy: prevention, treatment, and recovery.  I will continue to work to increase and sustain funding that goes directly to states and local communities in need as we work to change the trajectory of this crisis.

Senator Susan M Collins (R-ME) represents Maine in the US Senate. She is the most senior Republican woman in the Senate, and serves on the Appropriations Committee, and is the Ranking Member of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.  She also serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; the Aging Committee; and the Intelligence Committee.

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