The nation’s “drug czar,” as he is often known, is in Vermont, as he studies states’ approaches to expanding access to addiction treatment.
The two-day visit from Richard Baum of the Office of National Drug Control Policy comes in the face of rising death tolls from heroin and prescription painkiller overdoses.
“The epidemic hasn’t peaked yet,” Baum warned at a press conference Monday at the Vermont Department of Health offices in Burlington.
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Baum attended a meeting of the Governor’s Opioid Coordination Council as he learned about ways the state is confronting addiction to heroin and other opiate drugs.
“Here in Vermont, you’re pioneers,” he said.
Baum praised Vermont for its focus in recent years on expanding its drug addiction treatment capacity. The state opened a center in St. Albans just last month, aiming to draw down wait lists for medication-assisted treatment in the state’s northwest region.
Baum also visited Burlington’s Howard Center, a major treatment provider, and had discussions with members of law enforcement and the non-profit sector engaged in turning around the opioid addiction crisis.
Overdoses of heroin, fentanyl, and other prescription painkillers killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015 alone, Baum said. Total overdose deaths involving other drugs soared to more than 52,000 that year, he said.
The numbers for 2016 will not be finalized until later this year, but Baum said he expects overdose deaths for last year to be higher than in 2015.
Baum said Vermont is now one of only three states with treatment capacity it considers sufficient to meet the substance abuse treatment needs of its residents.
Despite that progress, the administration of Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, considers the addiction fight far from over.
One complication moving forward is that Scott’s administration has to contend with an uncertain funding future for drug treatment and other Medicaid programs.
Proposed budgets out of D.C. and the push to repeal the Obama-era health system could mean the state stands to lose up to $200-million in federal funds in the year 2020, according to Vermont Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille.
“That would affect every Medicaid program and it would affect this,” Gobeille said of efforts to continue to deliver medication-assisted treatment to Vermonters who need it.
“The budget that’s been proposed in Washington, either by Congress or the president, would have a devastating effect on Vermont,” Gov. Scott said. “We rely heavily on Medicaid funding.”
Baum, who has served under three presidents prior to President Donald Trump, told reporters he continues to advocate for states that need federal support in order to confront the addiction epidemic.
“As the drug czar in Washington, I am day in and day out advocating to make sure we have the resources as a country for everyone who needs treatment, and that’s what I’ll keep doing,” Baum said.
While Baum praised Vermont for expanding access to medication-assisted treatment, experts say the majority of people who need help with their addictions just aren’t seeking it.
So Baum and Vermonters on the front lines of delivering services know the challenge moving forward will be to somehow reach out better to people with addictions and work to bring them into therapy in hopes of breaking heroin’s grip.