Shumlin stepping up battle against heroin ‘epidemic’
MONTPELIER — In his fourth annual state of the state address this past Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin used his bully pulpit to home in on one topic: the “epidemic” of opiate addiction in Vermont.
It was an unusual strategy. Typically, governors (and as Shumlin has in the past) use the state of the state address to give Vermonters the administration’s vision for the coming year on a variety of perennial topics, such as the economy, education, health care and the environment.
There was nothing typical about the second-term Democrat’s speech. His short address — it was just over 30 minutes — stayed focused on one premise: Opiate addiction is a public health issue that threatens to undermine the basic sense of safety and security of Vermonters.
The governor went so far as to compare the crisis to Tropical Storm Irene, the devastating flood that destroyed 500 miles of roads, hundreds of homes and the state office complex in August 2011.
The opiate addiction crisis, he said, is “much tougher,” because it is “more complicated, controversial and difficult to talk about.”
“It is a crisis bubbling beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers and too many Vermont families,” Shumlin said. “It requires all of us to take action before the quality of life that we cherish so much is compromised.”
“Just as you expected us to work across agencies and across state and local government to help us all recover from the devastation of a tropical storm, so too should you expect us to approach this crisis of drug addiction with coordination and effective action,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin told lawmakers in the House Chamber that the war on drugs isn’t working and the state needs to treat drug addiction as a chronic disease — not a criminal matter. He pointed to rapid intervention programs in Chittenden County that send addicts into treatment instead of jail as a model for the state. The governor’s initiative would eliminate a waiting list for 500 people who are seeking methadone treatment in central Vermont and Chittenden County.
The governor cited a broad array of statistics. Treatment for opiate addicts is up 771 percent since 2000, and more than twice as many Vermonters this year have died from consuming heroin or prescription opiates. The state’s Drug Task Force estimates more than $2 million in heroin and opiates is being trafficked in Vermont every week. Eighty percent of the state’s prisoners are either addicted to opiates or are in prison because of their addiction.
He also told stories about drug addicts who have sought help and found a way out of addiction. The governor recognized filmmaker Bess O’Brien for her documentary “The Hungry Heart,” and several of the recovering addicts who were featured in the film, including Dustin Machia of St. Albans, and his pediatrician, Dr. Fred Holmes, who were in the gallery of the House Chamber for the state of the state address. Later, in a news conference, Machia talked about how wait times for treatment become a barrier for recovery. Every day an addict is ready for treatment but can’t get help is a day that could be fatal for an addict.
About 4,293 Vermonters were treated for some form of opiate addiction — for heroin or prescription drug abuse — in fiscal year 2012. That number is up from about 1,000 in fiscal year 2005, according to a Dec. 15 study from the Vermont Department of Health and the Department of Vermont Health Access.
Though the state expanded programs for treatment last year, and as of October had provided methadone to 1,482 people, the treatment centers can’t keep up. Another 1,200 Vermonters are on a waiting list for methadone, a commonly used medical therapy for heroin addicts. The typical wait time is two weeks; in Chittenden County the wait times can be as long as 12 to 18 months. The Chittenden Center, which serves Franklin, Grand Isle, Addison and Chittenden counties, provided methadone treatment for about 600 Vermonters as of October. Centers in Brattleboro and the Northeast Kingdom also have high caseloads.
The governor’s initiative would put hundreds of thousands of dollars into programs ranging from rental subsidies, to real-time mapping of criminal activity to allowing judges to impose tougher sentencing guidelines.
He proposes to spend $200,000 from the 2014 Budget Adjustment (which means the money can be used immediately) to “slash” methadone treatment waiting lists in northern Vermont. Shumlin says he wants to invest about $1 million in substance abuse recovery centers and programs for Reach Up beneficiaries who need substance abuse or mental health treatment. Under the Affordable Care Act, more federal support will be available to individuals seeking treatment for substance abuse disorders.
His 2015 budget proposal, which will be released this week, will also include $760,000 for pre-arraignment assessment of detainees who have substance abuse problems. The governor is also giving a small grant ($20,000) to O’Brien to talk with high school students across the state about the dangers of drug addiction.
Shumlin’s initiative will be the purview of a drug council, law enforcement and treatment centers. He does not have a point person in the administration overseeing the effort.
The governor’s plan has the backing of the leadership in the House and Senate, the medical community and law enforcement.
At a news conference following his speech, Shumlin was surrounded by a who’s who of criminal justice notables, including Paul Reiber, chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. The governor, emcee style, asked a dozen people to give short speeches in support of the initiative.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and former Chittenden County prosecutor, also praised Shumlin’s plan.
“Gov. Shumlin has clearly defined the problem, he has identified why it matters to all Vermonters, and he has proposed a wide range of solutions to help solve this crisis,” Leahy said in a statement. “I commend the governor and the Vermont Legislature for making this a top priority for the new session. We need all hands on deck to fight heroin and opiate addiction in Vermont, and the governor has proposed answers that can draw strength from all parts of our community.”
Republicans in the Statehouse were less sanguine about the plan. On the whole, they were disappointed that the governor did not stake out an economic initiative that would address their concerns about funding for schools, job creation and state spending.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who is a member of the governor’s cabinet, issued a statement that was unusually critical.
“I agree wholeheartedly with the governor that drug abuse — and prevention, enforcement, treatment and recovery — is a critical issue in our state that we must address,” Scott said. “I look forward to working with him and the Legislature on creative solutions to this growing problem.
“The governor also mentioned that creating jobs and opportunity is the best prevention,” Scott continued. “I completely agree, but I’m concerned that there was no mention of a plan or strategy on that front. Since being elected to public office, I’ve been talking about the need to grow the economy, creating an environment that is conducive to growth, and making it easier for people to do business in Vermont. I’m concerned that we have created a lot of uncertainty on a number of issues — health care, property tax increases, employer mandates and other government regulations — some of which are making it harder, not easier, to do business in Vermont. I want to once again challenge every legislator and the governor to think about their decisions on each and every piece of legislation this session through this lens: How will it impact business and economic growth in Vermont?”
See the full text of Shumlin’s speech here.
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