On a rainy morning in Bangor, Ashley Roberts, OPTIONS Liaison for Penobscot County, is meeting up with a public health nurse and other members of the behavioral health team at Community Health and Counseling Services. They head out together weekly to provide mobile healthcare to people who are currently unhoused. These trips allow the nurse to provide care and Ashley, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, to build relationships and learn what people may need to stay safe and healthy.
Every day across the state, OPTIONS Liaisons in every county connect with people in need of support related to substance use. Though no two days look the same, this always starts with care and concern for a person’s overall well-being, and not just their substance use.
For Liaisons, this may mean assisting someone to find an available treatment provider for themselves or a loved one. In other cases, support is helping someone access transportation or food assistance. It could also mean accompanying law enforcement officers to visit a person who has experienced an overdose, to begin building a relationship. For other Liaisons like Nick Loscocco in Lincoln County, support takes the form of regular meetings at a local jail, to connect people to resources upon their release. As any Liaison will tell you, they want to support each individual in whatever way is best for them to stay safe and get healthy.
“The great thing about OPTIONS is that we really have a lot of freedom to work in a variety of arenas. And we want to simplify substance use–but substance use is really complex. There’s no cookie-cutter solution. Everybody has individual needs,” says Glenn Gordon, Oxford County Liaison.
OPTIONS (which stands for Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach Naloxone and Safety) is one strategy supported by Governor Janet Mills’ administration to reduce fatal and non-fatal drug-related overdoses in Maine. Liaisons are licensed behavioral health clinicians working through four agencies contracted through the Maine Office of Behavioral Health: Aroostook Mental Health Services (AMHC), Community Health and Counseling Services, Sweetser and Tri County Mental Health Services.
According to Gordon Smith, Maine’s Director of Opioid Response, “We are building a system of support that is human-centered. Care, concern and connection are the building blocks of this system. It all starts with these fundamental steps – relationships and trust are essential.”
Liaisons’ work is also proactive, so communities are aware of what’s available and can understand the importance of a compassionate response. Liaisons engage with the public to reduce stigma, distribute naloxone and create visibility for the support that is available.
Program Success and Growth
While the OPTIONS initiative is still new, data collected by the The Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine are showing encouraging results. Eric Haram of Haram Consulting, LLC, along with the Maine Medical Association’s Center for Quality Improvement (CQI) provide technical assistance. According to Haram, “Liaisons have referred over 5,100 people to community-based treatment or recovery support programs, with about 80% of clients confirmed to have attended their first appointment.” He adds, “Over 850 individuals have been referred to syringe services between October 2022 and July 2023.” Liaisons have also given out about 14,000 doses of naloxone and have trained over 6,300 Mainers on overdose response and anti-stigma education.
The technical assistance team works directly with Liaisons to strategically improve services, reduce barriers and increase the number of people served. Program data, and input from stakeholders, have resulted in quality improvements. This year, Governor Mills announced an expansion, adding 16 Liaisons to serve in counties with a high need.
Liaisons & First Responders
Liaisons work alongside first responders who provide aid to people in medical emergencies, including EMS (emergency medical services) and law enforcement. Having a history of an opioid overdose places a person at greater risk of an overdose in the future, so this collaboration with first responders is critical. Law enforcement referrals are the most frequent way people get connected with OPTIONS Liaisons, having resulted in thousands of Mainers reached since the initiative began.
Because Liaisons cannot be on site for every accidental overdose that occurs, OPTIONS is now partnering with Maine EMS for a pilot project to increase collaboration and follow-up. Through the project, EMS responders can make direct referrals to their local OPTIONS Liaison using their medical record system in the field. This allows EMS to respond to the medical emergency while also supporting the person’s behavioral health needs.
According to Megan Salois, Maine EMS Substance Use Disorder Response Program Manager, “The referral program is still in its early pilot stages but with close work alongside with the Office of Behavioral Health we envision great potential to offer a new pathway for our EMS clinicians to connect people experiencing substance use to treatment and harm reduction access options.”
Sharing Liaison Stories
To raise awareness about OPTIONS Liaisons and what they can offer, the OPTIONS media campaign produced a set of videos featuring five local Liaisons sharing their stories and their work in Androscoggin, Franklin, Lincoln, Oxford and Penobscot counties. View and share them at KnowYourOptions.ME.
As Dave Bilodeau, OPTIONS Liaison for Androscoggin County, says in his video interview, “No matter how low you are, no matter how bad you are right now, things can get better and you can live a good life. So never give up on anybody.”
To find and connect with your local OPTIONS Liaison, visit KnowYourOptions.ME.
Article made possible with the support of the OPTIONS program and the Maine Office of Behavioral Health. KnowYourOptions.ME