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Bennington Banner: Welch Meets with those Fighting Opioid Crisis

April 6, 2018
In The News

A consortium of organizations creating a plan to address opioid addiction in the county was an idea that took hold during a roundtable discussion attended by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont.

The congressman met here Wednesday with about two dozen service providers, law enforcement and health officials, recovering addicts and others, saying he wanted to hear about local programs and how the pending availability of federal funding could help those efforts.

Toward the end of the 90-minute discussion, Southwestern Vermont Health Care CEO Thomas Dee floated the idea of creating a group to address addiction, similar to community and business organizations forming the Bennington Redevelopment Group two years ago. That consortium is planning the Putnam Block reconstruction project, seeking to transform the downtown area.

Zirwat Chowdhury, the town's Community Development director, said later that a lack of cohesiveness has hindered similar groups of independent organizations and cited a need for a paid coordinator position.

Also during the discussion, Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage cited a need for "an oversight committee to decide where the [grant money] goes" locally.

The programs receiving funding shouldn't "just be the squeaky wheel," or those that can muster the most influence, she said.

"Listening to this, it makes sense to me," Welch said, promising to look into the possibility of funding for a coordinator position.

Dee said the development consortium formed with about 12 organizations and later "came back with a coherent strategy" for redeveloping the four acres and six buildings in the Putnam Block. He said the group continues to meet regularly as the $53 million project moves toward completion of a financing package.

"I'll commit the hospital's time and resources right now," Dee said, if those addressing addiction issues in the county decide to "pull together" in an organized way.                                                                      

The individual organizations present "need a strategic plan," said Paul DiIonno, outpatient services director at United Counseling Service.                         

`Pretty inspiring'

"It is pretty inspiring to see throughout Vermont at these meetings similar gatherings of really good people who are invested in their communities," Welch said, also noting serious challenges faced by those in the room.

"So at the outset, I want to say thank you," he said.

While the federal government has approved a $3.3 billion funding package to address aspects of the addition epidemic, Welch said the direction for how to expend those dollars must come from the local level in each community.

"This is really hard and important work," he said, adding that programs that will receive grant funding are "totally dependent on people like you working hard and cooperatively."

Reducing the wait times for addiction treatment programs was mentioned as a top priority.

"I think for many communities around the state, this is an issue," said DiIonno. "Wait lists are way too long and services are limited."

Someone who wants to enter an addiction treatment program "cannot wait weeks," he said, but DiIonno and others said that sometimes is the case.

Retired Dr. Richard Dundas said "treatment on demand, to start that day" should be the goal, but such a policy would run into a "resources problem," or a lack of sufficient funding.

In addition, Dundas said, a shortage of "medical manpower is a problem," in terms of having too few specialists in addiction treatment.

Currently, the area has two board certified addiction treatment specialists, Dee said, adding, "I think we need to go beyond that.

DiIonno cautioned that it is also important to recognize "that we are not going to treat our way out of this either," saying that educational and other support initiatives are needed as well and that medical treatment programs "are only part of the picture."

Treatment with alternative drugs "is only a bridge" toward recovery, said Jennifer Fels, director of the Bennington Blueprint For Health program at SVHC.

Housing and financial support, along with employment opportunities for people in recovery, were other issues cited.

"Recidivism is very high" for recovering addicts, who often are released with minimal support back into their old neighborhoods, said Ken Sigsbury, director of Turning Point Center.

"I feel recidivism would go down significantly," he said, with something like a treatment center and "recovery housing or a campus here in Bennington."

Employment opportunities for those in recovery, especially those being treated with drug alternatives to heroin or opioid medication, who often are rejected for jobs, is another issue that needs addressing, participants said.

For Tom Bruso, youth coordinator with the Turning Point Center, finding a community at the center made the most difference for him. He described becoming addicted in his teens and only being able to quit drugs for two or three weeks at a time before entering the center's program.

"This time was the only time it actually worked," he said.

Correction versus treatment

"Trying to arrest our way out of the problem" was rejected by all of the roundtable participants. The state's attorney illustrated, however, how difficult such incarceration-or-treatment decisions can be.

Marthage said it's important to focus on jail time for the minority of serious, predatory offenders who also are involved with drugs. But she added, "My job description has changed a lot over 10 years. Probably 70 of the cases now have underlying addiction issues."

With the need to consider diversion treatment options for so many people, she said, her office sometimes looks more like that of "a social worker than a prosecutor."

Particularly difficult, she said, is deciding whether to release someone facing charges when their loved ones call her begging to have the person kept in jail to prevent a drug overdose.