AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The number of babies born in Maine who are affected by or dependent on drugs is expected to climb to more than 800 by the end of the year, Gov. Paul LePage said in his weekly radio address. That would be the largest number recorded in the state and about five times what it was nearly 10 years ago.
The Republican governor’s message released Wednesday sheds light on a symptom of Maine’s high opiate addiction rate: Babies are being born already dependent on drugs, often because their mothers used the drugs during pregnancy.
“This is an issue we ought to all be concerned about and be willing to work together on to find solutions,” LePage said. “It is my hope we can reverse this troubling trend because our children’s future depends on it.”
Dr. Mark Publicker, who specializes in addiction medicine at the Mercy Hospital Recovery Center in Westbrook, said he treats significantly more women for opiate addiction than men — particularly women who’ve been physically or sexually abused.
“The bottom line is we have an epidemic,” he said of the addiction problem for opiates like heroin and prescription medication. “As the epidemic increases, it’s logical that you’re going to have more pregnant women who are opiate addicted.”
More than 160 Maine newborns were affected by drugs in 2005, when the state began collecting data, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. LePage said about 770 have been born in Maine so far this year.
“It’s a result that is obviously very troubling, when you have innocent children that are being born that have this impact on their life,” said Roy McKinney, director of Maine’s Drug Enforcement Agency.
Dr. Mark Brown of Eastern Maine Medical Center says potentially drug-dependent babies must be observed for five days to see if they experience withdrawal symptoms, like tremors or dehydration. Babies that need treatment could be hospitalized for up to a month.
“There’s a significant health care burden here,” he said. “That’s in addition to concerns about outcomes, concerns about all of the downstream effects.”
Some doctors say the state must distinguish between babies born to mothers on illicit opioids, like heroin, and those on drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, which are used to treat addicts.
While those drugs can also cause babies to experience withdrawal, they prevent pregnant women from going through withdrawal, which can cause pre-term labor and impact the baby’s health, Publicker said.
The state recently put a two year cap on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for Medicaid patients, unless they get prior approval for an extension. Some in the medical community say arbitrarily limiting access to treatment can cause addicts to relapse.
“We have among the highest rates of addiction and extremely poor access to appropriate treatment,” Publicker said. “When we start arguing against women having adequate access to effective treatment, then we are creating a really dangerous and serious problem.”
LePage said he’s working with the health department on the issue, including examining what steps other states are taking. Among other things, officials are working on a strategic plan to address drug-affected infants and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a spokesman for the health department said in an email.
“I am deeply concerned about the suffering and long-term consequences these newborns are subjected to,” LePage said. “This is no way to start life.”
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