State News

New ‘Social Autopsy’ report examines drug overdose trends in Vermont

Report released on International Overdose Awareness Day to honor lost

The Vermont Department of Health has released the state’s first Social Autopsy Report, an in-depth look at how those who died of a drug-related overdose interacted with state agencies, and where improvements in the state’s efforts can be made. The release coincides with the observance of International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.

The Social Autopsy report examines data from 2017, when 109 Vermonters died of an accidental or undetermined drug overdose. The report found that of those who died, nearly all had an interaction with at least one agency in the years before they died (98%). Two-thirds interacted with three or more state agencies, including the Vermont Dept. for Children and Families and the Dept. of Vermont Health Access.

Funded under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Overdose Data to Action grant, the Health Dept. partnered with the departments of Corrections, Children and Families, Vermont Health Access (Medicaid), and Public Safety to analyze each department’s data.

That review found that many Vermonters who died of a drug overdose in 2017 had complex needs as well as varied physical and mental health conditions. They also were prescribed more controlled substances than the Vermont population in general and had multiple interactions with emergency medical services.

“Any overdose death is one too many,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD. “This report will be a valuable resource in our ongoing work to improve how we can help people with substance use disorders and those struggling with addiction,” Dr. Levine said. “And we do this knowing these are people and not data points. These are friends, neighbors and loved ones we have lost.”

Overall, people most frequently had some contact with the Vermont Prescription Monitoring Program (VPMS) – 84% had at least one prescription for a controlled substance between 2012 and 2017. The VPMS is used to support and coordinate clinical care and substance misuse prevention, and to assist in understanding the patterns of controlled substance prescribing and dispensing in Vermont. The report also found that 82% interacted with Vermont State Police between 1988 and 2017.

Dr. Levine emphasized the report is especially relevant now – with opioid-related fatalities at a markedly higher rate when compared to last year. In June 2019, Vermont reported 48 such fatalities since the beginning of the year. 2020 preliminary data shows there have been 72 overdose-related deaths this year as of June. “Opioids are powerful drugs and affect people differently,” said Dr. Levine. “Anyone can become addicted and be at risk of an overdose.”

Noting that Vermont has made tremendous progress over the years addressing the opioid crisis, Dr. Levine said the state has a moral obligation to keep focused on doing everything it can to prevent drug overdoses. “We will use this report to inform our policies and programs to keep Vermonters alive, so they can get the treatment and supports they need, wherever they are, to succeed in their recovery.”

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