Feds sending $2M more for state addiction programs

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RICHMOND – Vermont’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic are getting a $2 million boost from the federal government.

The additional funding, announced Monday by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will expand state programs like drug disposal, prevention training and peer coaching for those in recovery.

Leahy said the recently approved 2018 federal omnibus appropriations bill also includes funding increases for law enforcement’s anti-heroin work, for opioid programs in rural communities, and for pregnant women and new mothers struggling with addiction.

Officials said that list illustrates both the need for funding and the diversity of potential solutions.

“We’re at a transition point in the opioid epidemic,” said Dr. Richard Bernstein, a Richmond Rescue member who helped start the town’s opioid task force a few years ago. “We have many of the needed structures in place, but people are still dying, and people are still overdosing. And we’re not going to be able to solve this problem in one way.”

Vermont is pumping funding into initiatives like the hub and spoke medication-assisted program and statewide distribution of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

But there’s not enough money to go around, as evidenced by a recent commitment to allocate $14 million in tobacco industry settlement funds to opioid programs as well as a proposal to tax manufacturers of prescription opioids.

So state officials say Leahy’s announcement, delivered Monday at Richmond’s town office, provides some much-needed help. Leahy said Vermont will get at least $4 million from the federal government’s State Opioid Response Grant Program — double last year’s appropriation.

It is “funding that will make a very real difference – a life-and-death difference for our friends, neighbors and loved ones who struggle with substance-use disorders,” state Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. “It will have an impact on the prevention front, as well.”

Levine said the grant funding will be used in a variety of ways, including the expansion of disposal options for unused prescription opioids, which Levine called “Vermont’s most-dangerous leftovers.”

Mark Levine
Health Commissioner Mark Levine speaks during a press conference on Vermont’s response to the opioid crisis on Monday, April 30, 2018. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

That’s already happening via disposal sites and events like last weekend’s “drug take back” day. But Levine said there’s a need for more.

“We’ll be able to purchase the materials needed to expand the number of drug-disposal kiosks in pharmacies and other locations around the state and make this process far more convenient and routine,” he said.

The money will also go toward strengthening the state’s programs for those in recovery and enhancing prevention strategies like training and screenings.

One example is a 40-hour substance-abuse training “that will be free to all prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery professionals,” Levine said.

And a peer-recovery support program will be expanded to “several more hospital sites,” Levine said. “Peer recovery coaches will be on site in emergency departments to work with individuals before they’re released from the hospital to offer recovery supports and resources.”

Levine said the federal money also will “support people in finding and maintaining employment, which will reduce the chances of relapse” during recovery from addiction.

Leahy, who is vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he pushed hard to increase funding for the Opioid Response Grant Program and other federal programs geared toward opioid addiction.

The senator said he hears about the need from communities like Richmond and from distraught parents who stop him on the street.

“We need help,” Leahy said. “I thought we had some drug problems when I was state’s attorney. It was nothing like we face today.”

He touted other addiction funding in the 2018 federal omnibus bill. For example, there is $130 million in a new program targeting rural communities that are deemed “at risk” for substance use disorder.

“Small towns – I don’t care if it’s in rural Iowa or rural Vermont – it’s harder, more difficult, more expensive to reach them,” Leahy said. “We have to have a special program for that.”

Leahy also discussed a $22 million nationwide increase in the Anti-Heroin Task Force program. Vermont has gotten $2.7 million in task force grants since the program’s inception in 2014, Leahy’s office said.

Col. Matthew Birmingham, who commands the Vermont State Police, said that money has enhanced the state Drug Task Force’s efforts to track and arrest traffickers bringing heroin and other opiates into the state for sale.

Matthew Birmingham
Col. Matthew Birmingham, the Vermont State Police commander. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

Birmingham cited a significant jump in the number of opiate investigations since the federal funding arrived, aided by the addition of more troopers and an analyst. One long-term investigation centering on Orleans County resulted in 150 controlled-drug purchases and 65 arrests.

“I can say unequivocally that this money … has been incredibly important to our mission in targeting heroin traffickers and fentanyl traffickers,” Birmingham said “It has also been very important for us in targeting drug diversion, as well.”

Leahy also discussed a $10 million increase in national funding for programs designed for pregnant women and new mothers who are struggling with addiction. That includes a $4 million pilot program based on the Vermont work of the KidSafe Collaborative and the Children and Recovering Mothers team.

Dr. Anne Johnston, a neonatologist with the University of Vermont Medical Center, said the latter program – known as the CHARM team – has made a difference by providing earlier prenatal care and medication-assisted treatment for expectant mothers who have substance-use issues.

Anne Johnston
Dr. Anne Johnston, a neonatologist with the University of Vermont Medical Center. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

“I think we’ve certainly made a lot of headway in this population in terms of assuring that women are in treatment earlier in their pregnancy and have healthier pregnancies and healthier babies,” Johnston said.

But measuring results is notoriously difficult in the midst of the opioid epidemic.

Levine noted that Vermont’s number of opioid-related overdose deathsclimbed in 2017, but at a much slower rate than officials had been seeing. And he said there are “little to no waiting lists” at the state’s hub sites for medication-assisted treatment.

But he calculates that, for every person in addiction treatment, there could be seven or eight who have not sought treatment.

“If you do the math, we think there could be 20,000 to 30,000 people (who have opioid use disorder in Vermont),” Levine said. “But we don’t know that. We hope it’s not that high.”

On a much smaller scale, Richmond residents took the town’s addiction problems into their own hands a few years ago by organizing a local task force. The organization, with help from state funding, undertook initiatives like a needle exchange, needle-collection boxes and a prescription drug disposal program.

Michael Chiarella, Richmond Rescue’s director of operations, said he’s seen a decrease in the amount of naloxone his medics are administering for overdoses. But he’s not yet ready to attribute that to the town task force’s efforts.

“Is there a direct relation? We can’t answer that,” Chiarella said. “We’ll see.”

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