He’s thrown his share of temper tantrums over the years, but never has Gov. Paul LePage gone so bonkers as to actually threaten someone’s life.
Last week, after months of inaction, the Maine Board of Pharmacy finally approved a set of rules enabling pharmacists to dispense the lifesaving, anti-overdose drug naloxone without a doctor’s order.
But there was one catch: Rather than allow anyone over 18 to purchase the drug, which immediately reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, the board unanimously bowed to LePage’s demand that the minimum age be 21.
Some fault Joe Bruno, chairman of the pharmacy board, for the compromise. They say the board could have passed the age-18 limit – LePage’s informal sign-off be damned – and thus saved more lives by making naloxone available to as many people as possible.
But Bruno, who insists that he was bound by longstanding protocol in seeking a thumbs-up from the governor, is not the real culprit here.
And if you think that’s just me talking, consider what happened Friday morning on WLOB Radio.
“This doesn’t make any sense to me,” said host Ray Richardson, normally one of LePage’s biggest cheerleaders, in an on-air interview with Bruno. “If the point of this drug is to stop someone from overdosing when they are in the throes of overdosing, do we really give a damn how old they are? I mean, honest to God, if my kid’s laying on the ground and his brother walks in and, because he’s 20 and 362 days – so he’s three days from turning 21 – and my kid dies, do I really give a damn about your rules? I mean, honestly, this is just crazy.”
Richardson, bless him, was just warming up.
“I know this is not your rule, Joe,” he told Bruno. “I know you compromised. Let’s be very clear about that. This is Gov. Paul LePage’s rule and he’s being very stubborn and, frankly, he’s being obtuse about this issue. He’s one of the guys who has tried so hard to fight the drugs coming into this state through enforcement. He has worked on rehabilitation. But for some reason, he’s got a blind eye on the issue of saving someone who’s overdosing. You can’t rehab them if they’re dead!”
LePage’s intransigence would be bad enough if he had anything resembling a rational reason for limiting distribution of naloxone.
But this is in no way a policy disagreement. Rather, it’s plain old political payback.
Richardson and Bruno, both of whom have spoken privately with LePage about naloxone, each said Friday that this whole flap stems from LePage’s pique with the Legislature: Last summer, overriding his veto, lawmakers upheld a new statute that raised the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.
Richardson said he agrees philosophically with LePage that if an 18-year-old can fight and die in a war, he or she should be able to buy a pack of cigarettes.
The problem, he said, is that the governor “has taken that philosophical discussion and put it into a … (naloxone) policy that doesn’t make any sense.”
Asked later in an off-air interview if naloxone is indeed LePage’s payback for the tobacco override, Bruno answered flatly, “Yes.”
Beyond the petty politics, it’s hard to fathom LePage’s utter ignorance here.
As the court-ordered “corrective statement” by Big Tobacco now running on television notes, “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day. More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol, combined.”
Naloxone saves people lives.
Asserts another of the ads: “Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.”
Naloxone offers opioid addicts a chance to recover.
By raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21, fewer people will die.
By doing the same with naloxone, more people will die.
In short, by conflating tobacco with naloxone, LePage once again puts the lie to his longstanding motto “People Before Politics.” Never, in the seven years since he first took his oath of office, has that been less true.
Here’s a better naloxone analogy, brought to Richardson’s listeners Friday by Bruno: “In actual law, someone can come in when they’re 18 and buy syringes. Now, what they do with those syringes is, probably, they shoot up. But that is a safety issue. It’s a safety issue on hepatitis, it’s a safety issue on HIV. We think that people with clean syringes are better off than reusing syringes from other people.”
Excellent point. So, if it’s legal in Maine to sell a brand-new syringe to an 18-year-old, why on earth wouldn’t we allow someone of the same age to buy an overdose antidote?
Because we have a governor who can’t control his anger, that’s why. A governor who says naloxone, rather than saving lives, only delays inevitable deaths.
But here’s the good news: This battle for simple logic, if not compassion, is not over.
As Bruno noted, the new rules must now undergo a 30-day public comment period, which will be formally announced by the secretary of state this week and will run until March 9.
After that, the Board of Pharmacy will have 120 days to review the comments and, after making any final changes it sees fit, formally adopt the rules. (Bruno promises to take only a fraction of that time.)
Meaning there might still be time to neutralize LePage, who himself admitted to NECN’s Danielle Waugh last week, “I don’t sign rules.”
He’s right. So, let’s say enough Mainers submit comments over the next month demanding that the Board of Pharmacy reset the naloxone purchase age at 18.
And let’s say the board puts all those people before LePage’s politics, does the right thing and calls the governor’s bluff.
What can LePage do? Fire them?
Bruno, saying that he feels “caught in the middle” between LePage’s bullheadedness and the urgent need to get the rules up and running, noted that the board operates under the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which in turn reports to LePage.
“The governor always has the ability to remove someone for cause – that’s the statute,” Bruno said. “I don’t know if (defying him on naloxone) is cause. I don’t know.”
All due respect, Mr. Chairman, there’s only one way to find out.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: