January 30

OUR OPINION: Maine loses a crucial tool with the closure of halfway house

The cost of the consequences will far outweigh any budget savings.

Halfway houses are an important part of the process of recovering from addiction to drugs or alcohol. They are residential programs, offering addicts support in a sober setting as they build the skills needed to live and remain substance-free on their own.

Women in recovery have special needs when it comes to preparing for this transition, but in Maine, they’ve lost one of their options for finding support. Crossroads Back Cove in Portland, one of the few halfway houses in our state, has closed, a victim of government spending cuts — and a symbol of the LePage administration’s misplaced values.

Substance abuse cost Maine $1.4 billion in 2010 — up 56 percent from 2005 — but only 3.4 percent of that was spent on substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery. The rest went to dealing with the fallout from addiction in jails, hospitals, workplaces and homes.

Given that national experts support substance abuse prevention and treatment as cost-effective, the administration should put more of the state’s money where it can do the most good.

Halfway houses serve people who want to stop using drugs or alcohol but need more intensive help than they can get from outpatient programs. Over a period of up to six months, they learn how to set up and abide by a daily routine while abstaining from substances. For example, those who’ve managed to become sober still risk relapse if they haven’t thought through how they’ll react in situations that test them, situations such as troubled families or party-hearty friends. A halfway house can offer a safe place to role-play those scenarios.

Typically, residents also receive help finding a job and a place to live, attend 12-step meetings, and take part in group, family and individual substance abuse counseling.

Crossroads offered a residential program geared specifically to women. Such gender-specific services recognize that women in recovery often also been victims of physical or sexual abuse, and may feel uncomfortable talking about such issues in a co-ed environment.

But Crossroads had to close its halfway house last month, after the state stopped funding its $330,450 annual budget. A self-pay, 30-day residential rehabilitation center — open to privately insured women or ones who can pay out of pocket, not via Medicaid — will open in its place.

The women’s house run by Wellspring substance abuse services in Bangor is now the only women’s halfway house in Maine. And the wait list to get into Wellspring has grown from 25 to 40. Because Wellspring has just 13 beds, and low turnover in its six-month program, women could be on the wait list for months — with consequences ranging from homelessness to jail to death.

Gov. Paul LePage has made it a priority to fight drug use, holding two Drug Awareness Summits in October after the release of a state report outlining the economic impact of substance abuse in Maine in 2010. But the summits, open only to law enforcement officials, left out the people who treat addiction, although there are solid economic reasons to make treatment a higher priority: Every $1 spent on it saves $7 in costs to employers and the health care and criminal justice systems.

It’s clear that substance abuse is taking a high toll in Maine. If we want that to change, we need to broaden our approach to focus on strategies beyond punishment.

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