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St. Albans Messenger: Welch Meets with Local Addiction Experts

February 6, 2018
In The News

If there was a unifying theme during Friday afternoon’s roundtable at the St. Albans BAART clinic, it was that addressing the opioid crisis was a community-wide challenge with no easy answers.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., hosted a roundtable discussion with community leaders to highlight the work being done at a state and local level to confront opioid addiction in Franklin County and gauge his role as a Congressman in the wider opioid crisis.

In the state of Vermont, progress is being made on addressing the opioid crisis, according to Vermont Commissioner of Health Mark Levine. Through programs like needle exchange and messaging, the state looks ready to see a turnaround on the number of overdoses, he said with a slight hesitation.

“The final numbers aren’t there. Our overdose death rate yearto- year should not be tremendously worse than last year, but I can’t promise it’ll be better,” Levine said. “But it’s better to plateau than [to keep rising].”

The opioid crisis, which refers to a dramatic surge in prescription painkiller and heroin addiction that’s overtaken the United States in recent years, continues to take a toll on Vermont communities. Even with a more pragmatic approach on the part of the state managing to slow the escalation of opioid addiction, roughly two Vermont residents die of accidental overdoses every week, according to Levine.

“I always like to say this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Levine said. “We have a long way to go.”

Treatment – which Levine warned is “funded on a shoestring budget” – alone isn’t enough to stem a user’s addiction, he added. Recovery needs to include the patient’s support systems and livelihood, as well.

“We also find that people in recovery need more support than… they get when it comes to medication assisted treatment and your counseling and your peer support,” Levine said. “They also need a place to live that’s stable, and more importantly they need to return to a life that’s more rich than just treating their disorder.”

This is especially true for recovering addicts coming out of rehab who may not even have access to things like a phone once they’re released from a treatment center, Melinda Lussier later added. Lussier is herself in recovery and now works as a medication assisted treatment (MAT) care coordinator with Northwestern Medical Center (NMC).

“We have people who are coming out of treatment… who don’t have a residence. How do you encourage a person to make sure they… make their counseling if you don’t have a car… don’t have a phone yet… and you don’t have a roof over your head?” Lussier said. “Who wants to get clean and sober to become miserable and bored?” The role of law enforcement as “tough love” was emphasized by St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor, who insisted that it was the long arm of the law that helped push some people toward rehab that might not otherwise have attended.

“We are the tough love. So if you go to your doctor and ask for help, your doctor will help you. If you go to a counselor and ask for help, they’ll help you,” Taylor said. “I know that, the minute someone raises their hand, we jump in. The trick is getting someone to raise their hand. Sometimes we’re the catalyst.”

The police chief also referred to a string of recent drug busts to show that law enforcement is succeeding in stemming some of the more illegal drug flows into the state, though he warned that the police can only do so much when it comes to policing the city’s drug trade.

Even if the St. Albans Police Dept. might know where trades happen, it’s difficult to keep a police presence when law enforcement is tied up with other jobs, the police chief explained.

“We’ve tried to do drug enforcement work between calls,” Taylor said. “We know about those places that we need to pay attention to… [but] you cannot address this problem in three minutes or eight minutes or even 15 minutes of time.”

A recurring theme was how communal the approach discussed during the roundtable was, something emphasized by NMC CEO Jill Berry Bowen. According to Bowen, the strength in Franklin County’s response to the opioid epidemic came from the grassroots cooperation coming from the different organizations that addressed everything from prevention to recovery.

“I think that the most important thing... is that this is a community approach... We’re wrapping around and making sure that all our care plans and all of our interventions are intra-linked,” Bowen said. “We walk them to the next door, because they might not walk there themselves.”

Several speakers present mentioned the significance of prevention and trying to address the roots of the epidemic, whether there be socio-economic roots, a deficit of information on opioid use or even just the lack of healthier choices in a community.

“We also need to talk about what’s driving this to begin with,” Bowen, a founder of the RiseVT healthy lifestyle initiative, said. “Let’s prevent it from happening to begin with by embracing healthy lifestyles.”

According to Director of Drug Abuse Prevention Jolinda LaClair, Vermont’s recovery network as a whole is strong, with 12 recovery centers across the state. Access to housing during recovery is in short supply, however, something LeClair mentioned to Congressman Welch as a placewhere federal help would be welcomed.

“It’s one of the things we do well, in terms of 12 recovery centers and a recovery network’s wraparound support,” LaClair said. “But as noted earlier, there’s not enough recovery housing or the continuum of housing needed from shelters all the way to sober housing.”

Welch was optimistic if not a little hesitant about the support he could provide from a national level.

“My job is to frankly get resources back to you,” Welch said. “But if we’re in Washington making your job harder, because we don’t have the housing support or we’re not steering research dollars toward the opioid addiction, then that just makes everything more difficult.”

According to Welch, addressing the economic conditions around the epidemic is important for stemming the prevalence of opioid abuse in rural America, where the opioid epidemic has been more intense in recent years.

“What I’m getting worried about is that there’s such a pressure on rural America,” Welch said. “A lot of it is that the economic underpinnings of rural America are fraying… The federal policy here is not just about treatment.”

Welch added, however, that ultimately addressing the epidemic would take grassroots work like the projects highlighted at the BAART roundtable, something he called “inspiring” and admitted was impossible to conduct from Washington.

“There are some things that the federal government can do and there’s some things we can’t,” Welch said. “We can’t do what you’re doing.”