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Vt. governor addresses opioid crisis head-on

January 14, 2014
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Last week, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin delivered his 2014 State of the State address and made it clear that he is taking the state’s drug problem seriously. He said that every governor has many crises to overcome during the tenure, and that his current crisis is “the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont.”

Annie Ramniceanu, Associate Executive Director of Clinical Programs at Spectrum Youth and Family Services (Burlington, Vt.) tells Addiction Professional that it offers treatment providers in the state great encouragement that the governor gave this issue such major prominence in his address. “I can’t remember in any recent time since I’ve been in the field that there’s been that much attention given to a very serious health problem,” she says.

The governor gave a handful of statistics during his speech, including:

  • Since 2000, Vermont has seen a more than 770% increase in treatment for all opiates.
  • Although the opioid use problem in the state started as an OxyContin and prescription drug problem, it has now reached the level of a full-blown heroin crisis.
  • Last year, there were nearly double the number of deaths in the state from heroin overdoes compared to the previous year.

Shumlin noted that almost 80% of incarcerated individuals are either addicted or in prison due to their addiction. And he pointed out that a week in prison in Vermont costs about $1,120 while $123 would pay for a week of treatment for a heroin addict at a state-funded center.

“You do not have to be a math major to realize that we can’t afford our current path. We have to figure out how to spend taxpayer money more wisely, while we treat the disease more effectively,” Shumlin said.

Ramniceanu, who is one of the developers of an intercept program at pre-arraignment that was evaluated recently, said that she is very supportive of the sequential intercept model (“a framework for understanding how people with mental illness interact with the criminal justice system,” according to NAMI)  and other initiatives that the governor mentioned in his speech. Using the program she helped to develop, three years of data using a control group and the effects against reducing recidivism were examined and the results were “phenomenal” – about an 85% reduction in recidivism, according to Ramniceanu.

While the governor mostly spoke about areas that needed improvement, he recognized that opioid treatment centers have opened in nearly every region of the state and that Vermont has made some headway in the criminal justice arena.

He mentioned the film The Hungry Heart, which focuses on one Vermont community that is struggling to save its children from the growing epidemic. He also gave examples of individuals in the community who have gone through addiction and are now in recovery.

Mitch Barron, Director of Centerpoint Adolescent Treatment Services (South Burlington, Vt.), believes the most important part of the governor’s address was that he “brought humanity to the issue of addiction. He did a beautiful job of helping everyone in the audience and beyond recognize that we’re not talking about ‘those people over there,’ but rather we’re talking about our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, our relatives, ourselves.”

Proposed plans to tackle drug problem

Shumlin offered a four-point plan in his address that includes:

  • Prevention services
  • Early intervention model
  • Comprehensive treatment
  • Communities that support recovery with housing and employment options

Barbara Cimaglio, Deputy Commissioner for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs for the Vermont Department of Health, spoke to Addiction Professional on behalf of the governor, saying, “We are very focused on healthcare reform in Vermont and we are striving to have addiction treatment be integrated as part of our healthcare system.”

She says officials are working with insurers to make sure there is consistent coverage for all services. Additionally, she explains that money from the corrections budget is going to be reinvested to try to shift resources into the earlier intervention services that the governor cited in his speech.

The governor also outlined a comprehensive proposal to tackle the threat of drugs in Vermont and some of the proposal elements include:

  • $200,000 to expand staffing and space at backlogged treatment centers, primarily in Chittenden County, the Northeast Kingdom and central Vermont. The goal is to eliminate waiting lists and ensure that treatment services are immediately available to every Vermonter in need. In addition, more than $8 million in ongoing funding for treatment and recovery will be in the proposed FY 2015 budget.
  • Using a $10 million federal grant over five years awarded this past summer to help medical providers intervene earlier with patients who are beginning to experience problems due to their substance abuse, and using a separate federal grant to 21 supervisory unions to fund drug education for three years.
  • $20,000 to ensure that the cast of The Hungry Heart, telling the real story of drug-addicted Vermonters, visits every high school in the coming year to speak directly with students about their personal experiences and the dangers of addiction.

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