Maine medical examiner wants more money to handle OD deaths

AP News
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Posted: Mar 23, 2017 5:33 PM

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine is dealing with so many drug overdose deaths that the state medical examiner is asking for money to handle the workload.

The epidemic of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids is behind a record number of overdose deaths — a reported 378 last year in Maine.

The state attorney general's office, which oversees the chief medical examiner's office, says sophisticated and costly drug screenings are at times required to determine which drugs are in a person's system.

Fentanyl mixed with or sold as heroin was involved in more than half of all overdoses last year, and Attorney General Janet Mills said the drug can be 50 times more powerful than heroin.

"The point is, in Maine right now, if anybody thinks it's safe to take heroin, to snort it, to shoot it up, whatever you do, in any amount, they are risking their own death," Mills said.

Maine isn't alone in dealing with the aftermath of rising overdose deaths. Several Ohio counties are using mobile cooling units to store bodies following a surge in deaths.

And in West Virginia, state funding to cover the cost of burials for the poor has run out five months before the end of the fiscal year. Officials say an increase in drug overdose deaths is to blame.

Maine ranked 13th highest in the nation for drug overdose deaths in 2015, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The attorney general's office has received $150,000 in supplemental state funding this year for toxicology screenings and is seeking an additional $300,000 in the next two-year budget.

Mills, a Democrat, said the funds will pay for the increased number of basic tests as well as additional advanced screenings — an expense on which she said the state can't cut corners.

"We have to pay the bills we get from the labs," she said.

Mills told a legislative committee in January that additional testing had been curtailed because of budgetary constraints.

Autopsies help the state figure out which drugs are coming into Maine and provide closure for families. Mills said toxicology screenings are also revealing highly potent drugs like carfentanyl, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

Mills said such information can also help build a criminal case against a person who provided the drugs.

"We're always on the lookout for holding people accountable individually for providing drugs they should have known were likely to cause the death," she said.

Maine has two full-time pathologists and is contracting with additional pathologists to cover autopsies.