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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Governor Focuses On Opiate Epidemic, Yet Waiting Lists, Funding Challenges Remain

Gov. Peter Shumlin has focused his annual address to lawmakers on what he calls a growing epidemic of drug addiction as treatment programs around the state struggle to keep up with a surge in demand for services.

Shumlin announced four new initiatives Wednesday to combat Vermont’s growing problems with opiate abuse. Shumlin asked lawmakers for a $1 million budget adjustment to help provide increased programs in trouble areas. He also proposed two initiatives that would form a stronger link between substance abuse professionals and law enforcement. Finally, Shumlin announced a state-funded tour that will allow Bess O’Brien and those featured in her film Hungry Heart to visit schools across the state.

According to the state's most recent official count – taken about 24 hours before Shumlin delivered his State of the State address – more than 600 Vermonters are stuck on waiting lists as they seek treatment for their opiate addictions.

According to the state’s most recent official count – taken about 24 hours before Shumlin delivered his State of the State address – more than 600 Vermonters are stuck on waiting lists as they seek treatment for their opiate addictions.

In a treatment system that relies on addicts first to admit they have a problem, providers don’t always have the capacity to offer a solution. And experts in the field say ensuring ready access to the pharmaceutical intervention needed to wean dope-sick patients from their addiction is key to minimizing the prescription drug abuse problem now plaguing many Vermont communities.

“You need to invest in wellness. And that’s not to say that every problem can be solved by throwing money at it,” says Bob Bick, director of mental health and substance abuse services for the HowardCenter in Burlington. “But I think that investing in making treatment available on demand is going to pay dividends well down the road.”

Professionals in the field say there’s no one solution to filling the numerous structural gaps in the state’s treatment infrastructure. But they say money will be needed to fund the clinical resources, physical spaces and other assets for which the addition recovery industry is in dire need.

In a State of the State speech that focused exclusively on the opiate issue, Shumlin indicated this afternoon that he’s willing to do devote new financial resources to the issue.

He will ask lawmakers for another $200,000 immediately to relieve pressure on treatment waiting lists. And he has earmarked another $1 million in the fiscal year 2015 budget for substance abuse treatment and mental health services for low-income residents.

Shumlin says he wants to spend an additional $760,000 on treatment and monitoring for criminal cases in which the prosecutor suspects a drug addiction is at the root of the problem.

The so-called “rapid intervention,” Shumlin said, will divert addicts away from prison and into treatment.

With a $70 million budget shortfall projected for next year's budget, and a pledge from the Democratic governor not to raise new broad-based taxes, it's unclear where the money [to address the opiate epidemic] will come from.

With a $70 million budget shortfall projected for next year’s budget, and a pledge from the Democratic governor not to raise new broad-based taxes, it’s unclear where the money will come from, or if the administration will propose cuts in other government services to fund the treatment initiatives.

A report issued last month by Commissioner of Health Harry Chen underscored the scope of the problem in Vermont. The Green Mountain State, according to national data, has the highest per capita rate for opiate admissions of any state except for Maine.

Chen said in the report that the newly implemented “Care Alliance for Opioid Treatment,” dubbed the “Hub and Spoke” approach, has expanded capacity by connecting regional treatment “hubs” to smaller clinics and primary care facilities.

But the report says that “one of the most significant challenges is reaching an adequate statewide staffing capacity of professionals trained in addiction treatment,” specifically the prescribing or administering of buprenorphine, an opiate medication used to get users off heroin. The report says resolving those staffing issues “will continue to be a high priority.”

Mark Ames coordinates a network of 11 “recovery centers” scattered across the state. He says addictions, opiate or otherwise, are chronic diseases. And he says Vermont needs to ensure that recovering addicts have ready access to support long after their initial treatment regimen is complete.

“Everybody that has an addictive disease has a chronic disease that lasts for their whole lifetime, and until they can get support that’ll keep them from getting back into trouble, they’re likely to become part of the statistics we have in Vermont – people that get treated repeatedly, go to corrections repeatedly get in trouble in other ways repeatedly, because of their use of substances,” Ames says.

Ames says addressing the issue will cost money, however, especially as more recovering opiate addicts flow into a recovery system ill-equipped to handle the unique needs of heroin and prescription drug addicts. Ames’ organization is seeking another $605,000 from lawmakers this year – about double its current allocation – to install fulltime directors and other support staff at recovery centers.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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