Program That Alerts Maine Doctors to Drug Arrests at Risk of Closing

May 19, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine - An innovative non-profit that's helped combat the diversion of prescription drugs in Maine is at risk of shutting down. Diversion Alert gives health care providers access to statewide drug arrest data to help them identify patients who may be involved in illegal activity.

The program was set up thanks to a two-year grant from the Maine Attorney General's office, which expires at the end of May. A bill before the Legislature would allocate more money for the program, but its prospects are uncertain, so the non-profit is asking community members and businesses to chip in and keep the program temporarily afloat.

Health care providers and pharmacists across the state widely praise Diversion Alert. One person who's had a lot of experience with the program is a nurse practitioner in Aroostook County named Ann Gahagan. I interviewed Gahagan three years ago, as part of a series on the state's fight against the illegal diversion of legally-prescribed pain pills.

At the time, Gahagan told me about a patient she had been treating for chronic pain. "And I had given her narcotics every week or every month because she came in and we had this good relationship."

Gahagan, who took part in a pilot that gave rise to the statewide Diversion Alert program, was scanning the arrest data one day and she saw her patient's name on the list.

"I asked her to come in and to bring her pills. I said, 'You didn't tell me that you have been arrested for abuse of your pain medication.' And she didn't have anything to say. You know, and I called her probation officer. And he said, 'Oh yeah, she's been doing that for years!' And I did not have a clue."

"It's really unique to Maine. There is no other statewide program like this in the country," says Clare Desrosiers, Diversion Alert's executive director. She says the program has been a huge success since it launched with the help of a $240,000, two-year grant from the Maine Attorney General's office.

In 2014, according to data compiled by Desrosiers, 54 percent of health care providers who completed a program survey said they discovered a patient on a Diversion Alert monthly report. Fifty-nine percent said they use the program to intervene with patients abusing or selling prescriptions. And 84 percent reported that the program has increased their attentiveness to prescribing practices for all patients.

"I don't want to see it just stop," Desrosiers says. But she says Diversion Alert now faces that very real possibility, and sooner rather than later. The grant from the Attorney General's Office expires at the end of May. A crowd-funding campaign for the program has raised just $150. Eastern Maine Health Services has pledged $5,000 to support the program, but only if Desrosiers can raise an additional $25,000 by June 1.

There's also a bill before the Legislature that would provide Diversion Alert with $95,000 a year, over the next three years, to continue operating. "If we don't get funding from the state, from the bill that was put in, we won't have any money for me to continue doing this full-time," Desrosiers says.

The bill came out of the Health and Services Committee on a divided report. It will still be debated in the house and senate. Meantime, Desrosiers is pursuing other grants and is appealing to community members and businesses to support Diversion Alert. But those appeals, even if successful, aren't likely to keep the program afloat on their own.