'Drug czar' says Vermont opioid treatment valuable model

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BURLINGTON — The White House "drug czar" on Monday praised Vermont — a pioneering state in the fight against opioid abuse — calling its opioid addiction treatment system an "an incredibly valuable national model" that is being emulated around the country.

During a two-day visit to the state, Richard Baum, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and his staff planned to talk with members of Vermont's opioid and drug misuse prevention, treatment, recovery and enforcement communities. On Monday, he attended a meeting of the Governor's Opioid Coordination Council, before speaking with Republican Gov. Phil Scott at a press conference in Burlington.

"What Vermont has accomplished by establishing a unique hub and spoke system for responding to the opioid crisis is an incredibly valuable national model," he said. "It demonstrates that when states, local government, and communities and others work together to meet challenges, we can begin to turn the tide of this awful epidemic."

Former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, highlighted the use of heroin and abuse of prescription painkillers by devoting nearly his entire State of the State address to it in 2014. He described it "as a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface" and called on the Legislature to pass laws encouraging treatment and to seek ideas on how to prevent addiction.

The state's "hub and spoke" system was formed to ensure that patients can receive effective and coordinated opioid addiction treatment and care no matter where they live in Vermont, according to the state Health Department.

The hubs are regional treatment centers while the spokes are clinicians, such as physicians and nurses who treat opioid use disorders in their own practices. The two work together with specialists working to stabilize people who need the most care and primary care physicians managing a patient's ongoing needs over the long term, according to Ben Truman, a spokesman for the Health Department.

While Vermont has been a leader in its response to the opioid epidemic, the state is still challenged by waiting lists at treatment centers, especially in Burlington, Scott said.

Heroin and other opioid related drug deaths are at an all-time high, he said, with 106 such deaths in Vermont from heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers in 2016.

In June, the state opened its sixth treatment hub in St. Albans, he said.

Now, over 3,000 residents receive treatment in the six hubs and another 3,500 get ongoing treatment and recovery support through the system's spokes, he said.

Medicaid funding is critical to this treatment, he said.

The budget that's been proposed in Washington either by the president or Congress would have a devastating effect on Vermont, which relies heavily on Medicaid funding, Scott said.

The state is working on a substance abuse waiver with the federal government so that it would have an agreement on part of the Medicaid budget that wouldn't necessarily be affected by what happens in Washington, Vermont Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille said.

"So hopefully we can do that. Waivers are not easy to get," he said.

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