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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

St. Johnsbury Forum Takes Aim At Drug Addiction

Charlotte Albright
Attendees at a community forum in St. Johnsbbury discuss ways to prevent and combat drug addiction.

As Vermont gears up to tackle the problem of opioid addiction, drug treatment providers are bracing for an influx of clients. But are there enough workers, hours, and detox beds to supply that rising demand? That was one of the questions raised at a community forum in St. Johnsbury Tuesday night.

The group of concerned citizens gathered in a church basement has been meeting for a few years to brainstorm ways to fight drug addiction in the Northeast Kingdom, but it picked up fresh steam after one of its members, film-maker Bess O’Brien, made her documentary about prescription drug addiction, “The Hungry Heart.” The film has inspired Governor Peter Shumlin to declare war on opioid addiction. At the forum, about 30 people discussed the challenges of fighting that war with limited resources. Justin Barton-Caplin, a regional substance abuse consultant for the state’s department of health, says that access to treatment is limited in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Just the need for detox beds as well as residential treatment options that are closer. Right now to get a detox bed you have to go to Burlington, or Rutland, which is at least a two-hour drive, either way, and so the bottom line there are just more resources for treatment,” he said.

Providers echoed that need—and not just for residential care. Outpatient services are also tapping out for clients who get methadone or suboxone to wean themselves from prescription drug overuse.  One  clinic contracted to do that work for the state in St. Johnsbury, Newport, and Berlin is dispensing medication to about 200 people daily. At the forum, a clinic staffer said some of the 55 people on the waiting list may have to wait as long as a year to get treatment.

The other problem, said film-maker Bess O’Brien, is that children as young as nine or ten are getting hooked on pills, and for them some services are even more scarce than for adults.

“And why is that?” she wondered. “And kids feeling like, yes they can go to AA meetings with geezers and they don’t want to be with geezers, they want to be with their friends, who are their same age.”

So some forum members are going to try to start prevention and recovery programs for young people.

Others are exploring workplace internships for adolescents in recovery from addiction. That group was led by the CEO of Northern Vermont Regional Hospital, Paul Bengtson.

“We’d have to work out a lot of the details but there’s a lot that’s needed in terms of building support services for people in transitions,” he said.

That is, people who have finished treatment but need to find stable housing and jobs.

The group agreed that treating drug addiction as a disease, rather than merely a crime, will be expensive.  For example, if  drug courts do offer treatment as an alternative to incarceration, they asked, where will those extra services come from?  They know that money is tight in Montpelier, and that the drug addiction problem goes beyond opioids. But they are still going to lobby their legislators to put the Northeast Kingdom on the front burner as funds are allocated for this new kind of war on drugs.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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