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Shumlin to make ‘opiate epidemic’ theme of State of the State

Gov. Peter Shumlin says the growing "opiate epidemic" in Vermont will be a "major focus" of his administration this legislative session, along with resolving a $70 million budget gap and laying the groundwork for his signature single-payer health care system in 2017.
Opiate addiction will be the overarching theme of the governor's State of the State address on Wednesday. Shumlin will mention the documentary "Hungry Heart," a film by Bess O'Brien that documents the lives of Vermonters who are struggling with addiction. Dustin Machia, a recovering addict, and his doctor, Fred Holmes, will be in the audience.
"I'm really concerned about the growing opiate epidemic in Vermont, and I want to spend time using my voice as governor to do a better job of fighting a battle that we're losing," Shumlin said in an interview. "I'm willing to be creative and innovative and deal with all the players to reduce the number of folks who are becoming addicted and find more innovative ways to succeed in more immediate recovery."
The governor says he will offer a set of recommendations to the Legislature to address what he describes as a "frightening" rate of increase in opiate addiction.
"We are gaining addicts to opiates at a rate that, if it continues, it will make it difficult for us to offer treatment in a system that's already overrun with demand," Shumlin said.
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 Vermont Department of Vermont Health Access.
Though the state expanded programs for treatment last year, and as of October 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 by October. Centers in Brattleboro and the Northeast Kingdom also have high caseloads.
Even though the state does not yet have enough methadone treatment facilities available, the governor wants to move ahead with a plan that would divert addicts and people with mental illness who have been arrested from the criminal justice system into treatment.
Though the state does not have statistical information citing what percentage of the more than 400 detainees cycling through the system are opiate addicts, increasingly, the Department of Corrections is stepping up programs to provide "medication assisted treatment" to help people detox in jail.
Shumlin says the state must do more to "successfully move people into treatment who aren't ready to go who are charged with a crime." The resistance to treatment, he says, "is a big challenge."
Lawmakers in the Senate and House Judiciary committees have teed up S.295, a bill that would move arrested individuals with a substance abuse problem or mental illness immediately out of the criminal justice system and into treatment - prior to arraignment. The accused would be required to undergo a "risk assessment" for substance abuse within three days of an arrest.
The Senate, which is taking the lead on the legislation, is expected to begin taking testimony on the draft legislation later this week.