Vermont “Heading in the Right Direction” in Heroin Fight

One year after Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., prioritized combating heroin and prescription painkiller addiction in a State of the State Address that grabbed national headlines, he said Vermont is making progress. "We're heading in the right direction," he said Wednesday. "We've got a lot more work to do."

In the past year, new opportunities for treatment have opened, including a methadone clinic in Rutland. Shumlin said today, there are approximately 1,000 more Vermonters in drug treatment programs statewide than a year ago.

The distribution of "rescue kits" containing the opiate antidote drug naloxone has been credited in the reversals of dozens and dozens of potentially deadly overdoses, Shumlin said. The non-profit Howard Center said its rescue kits alone have been linked to 133 overdose reversals.

Dr. Harry Chen, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, noted that care providers have screened almost 13,000 Vermonters using evidence-based methods to identify substance abuse disorders and get them help as early as possible.

However, there are still waiting lists for drug treatment at facilities like the Howard Center, which serves the greater Burlington area. “But we do not have pregnant women on the wait list,” executive director Bob Bick noted.

Bick said currently, the Howard Center is serving 972 clients; a 40 percent increase over one year ago. "It's really not about the destination on this particular issue, it's really about the journey, and how we work with individuals whose lives are affected by opiate addiction to improve their quality of life," Bick said.

Shumlin said in 2015, Vermonters can look for a rollout of more links between the criminal justice system and treatment providers. A new pre-trial services law will mean counties statewide will have "rapid intervention" programs, which necn profiled last summer.

The Vermont Department of Health and non-profit agencies also plan new strategies for education, prevention, and early intervention.

Shumlin noted this is a tough budget year in Vermont. There's a gap of around $100-million between state spending and revenues. Still, even in that climate, Shumlin said drug treatment is such a priority that his proposed budget increases spending on it by 16-percent, a more than $5-million increase.

"As tough as it is to come up with money right now, we can't back off," Shumlin told reporters. "We can't lose ground."

Raina Lowell of Montpelier, Vt. is in long-term recovery from heroin addiction. She told NECN one victory since the Governor's groundbreaking State of the State Address last January is that Vermont has begun chipping away at the stigma of drug addiction. Stigma once kept her from seeking help, she said.

"Shame is the real killer," Lowell added. "I was suffering, but I didn't know how to tell anybody because all I could think was, 'What are people going to think? How could I let this happen?'" Lowell said. "Today, I believe that people are more comfortable saying, 'I think I may have a problem.'"

Lowell now works for Burlington Labs, which provides drug testing services to employers, state agencies, and others. "We do a lot of work out in the communities," Lowell said of Burlington Labs. "We do a lot of prevention work, a lot of things that send a message to our community that people do recover, and we have conversations about addiction and about recovery."

In what Shumlin said should be a sign of encouragement, the rate of pain reliever misuse among young Vermonters dropped in a recent national survey. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that binge drinking, marijuana use, and painkiller misuse dropped between young adults in the state between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. Prescription painkiller misuse often leads to heroin use, Shumlin pointed out.

The office of Gov. Shumlin said, according to a report by the NSDUH, past 30-day binge drinking fell from 50 percent to 45 percent, past 30-day marijuana use fell from 33 percent to 29 percent, and past-year prescription pain reliever misuse fell from 12 percent to 9 percent among Vermonters age 18 to 25. This translates to approximately 3,000 fewer high risk drinkers, 3,000 fewer marijuana users, and 2,000 fewer people misusing painkillers in the 18 to 25 age group.

"These numbers are meaningful," Vermont Health Commissioner Chen said in a statement released by Shumlin's office. "They show that young adults have been moving away from harmful use of alcohol and drugs. Reducing the burden of alcohol and drug addiction is a continuing priority for the Health Department and our work with the community coalitions and regional Partnerships for Success." 

Contact Us