Now that she’s in, will Mills actually deliver?

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Janet Mills sure had a nice honeymoon this week.

Matt Dunlap grandiosely swore her in. She got to fulfill every boomer liberal’s dream of singing on stage with one of the dudes from Peter, Paul and Mary. She enacted a major piece of legislation that the majority of Mainers had been demanding for years. All the Democratic Party pols showed up to her party on Friday night and told her how great they think she is.

Good for her. Mills has worked hard to achieve this. She deserves to celebrate for a moment.

But now that she’s in there, it remains to be seen what she’s really going to do.

To her credit, Governor Mills has already begun making some gestures toward advancing the interests of Maine’s Native American communities. She even invited Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador, Maulian Dana, to speak at her inauguration.

But then, on New Year’s Eve, she appointed Jerry Reid, her former Assistant Attorney General, to be the Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. Reid was a pivotal opponent of the Penobscot Nation in the major legal battle, which Mills carried out as AG, to limit the Penobscot Nation’s sovereignty over the river running through their reservation. Inviting Dana to speak is symbolic. Putting Reid in charge of an entire department of our government is as concrete as you get.

Likewise, Mills has been making grand pledges to address Maine’s opiate crisis. As our state continues to lose more than one person a day to overdoses, the urgency of this tragedy continues to mount. I’m glad to see her taking it on. LePage certainly never saw it as the humanitarian crisis that it is. But, again, what is Mills actually going to do?

She’s already authorized MaineCare expansion. Once that goes through, there’s $500 Million that’s currently on the table in DC that can immediately be put toward helping low income Mainers access drug treatment services. That’s huge. But it also doesn’t really cost the State of Maine anything. After all, it’s almost entirely federal money. It’s necessary, but it’s probably not sufficient to turn the tide here.

Another big thing that she’s been talking about is “Recovery Coaching.”

I am a recovery coach. I completed 30 hours of training sponsored by the City of Westbrook to become one, and I’m planning to go to Connecticut to get certified to train other people to become recovery coaches. I believe strongly in peer-based approaches to mental health and addiction services, and I very much want to see there be more peer navigators and other nonjudgmental community support structures in place to help folks turn their lives around. I believe in what the Recovery Coach programs are trying to do.

That said, I’ve also been in the game long enough to know an easy ask when I see one, and the Recovery Coach programs are most assuredly that.

Here’s why. The programs don’t cost almost anything to operate – the coaches are usually volunteers, sometimes with a small stipend, if anything, not professionals. They’re pretty much just local people who offer their time toward helping other people in their community make new lives in sobriety. Recovery coaches tend to meet with their assigned folks offsite, so the State won’t even need to open offices for the program. My guess is they’ll just dump the responsibility of administrating the programs on existing public sector workers. It also isn’t remotely risky politically. I mean, who’s opposed to neighbors helping neighbors? It doesn’t challenge a thing.

Recovery coaching programs also usually don’t work very well. A lot of folks in drug policy circles in Maine have been talking about recovery coach programs for the last few years, and a few communities have already done pilot programs, including Westbrook and South Portland. But from what I’ve heard, the programs have proven hard to sustain interest in. They often flounder in this weird gap, between professional services, like psychiatric counseling and social work, which people in early recovery need to survive, and peer support, which can usually be found at twelve step meetings, churches and other places that already exist in most neighborhoods and towns.

Calling for recovery coaching is good, but let’s be honest, it isn’t a panacea. Not even close. What it is, is easy.

One thing that would actually make a big difference would be large scale funding allocations to cover the things that MaineCare expansion won’t, like bringing more treatment beds online, opening more recovery residences and community centers, and launching more employment programs oriented toward helping folks with substance use disorders get back to work. But allocating millions of additional dollars is always a tough lift. Most people just really do not want to pay more taxes, especially if it means taking their hard-earned money and giving it to people with substance use disorders.

Other solutions are cheaper, but exponentially more politically risky, like authorizing the State of Maine to take the helm in opening and defending overdose prevention sites where people can use drugs under medical supervision. There’s a mountain of evidence that offering professional medical services to people who are actively using drugs goes a long way toward keeping them safe and making it easier for them to get into treatment, but they won’t be popular, at least not at first. Lots of voters just really don’t want to “allow” folks to shoot dope in their towns. It’ll be tough to change their minds. But realistically, there are plenty of people who aren’t about to stop using tomorrow. And the simple truth is that they don’t have to die.

Not all “solutions” to this crisis are created equal. Allocating millions of additional dollars to cutting edge programs will make a significant dent in the crisis, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.

As I see it, however, that’s what defines genuine leadership – the willingness and ability to do difficult things. Democrats currently have the trifecta – the House, the Senate and the Governorship. This is the time to hold our new governor’s feet to the fire and ask for big stuff.

If not now, when?

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.