Positive steps seen in tackling opioid crisis

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BRATTLEBORO — The Governor's Opioid Coordination Council's recommendations are being looked at locally as a good start to tackling the current crisis.

"I've been very impressed with the leadership of the group," said Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi, who serves on the council. "But the willingness of everyone to pitch in and talk about their feelings and opinions, it's just been tremendous."

Last Wednesday, the same day Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation for gun reform, the council revealed recommendations from its first report.

The ideas include developing a continuum of care from pre-birth to 3 years old; growing and supporting Vermont's workforce by hiring residents in recovery; improving statewide data collection; implementing a statewide comprehensive plan to deliver school-based primary prevention programs; expanding health care education, monitoring and screening for providers and patients; creating a public messaging campaign that promotes intervention techniques such as syringe-exchange programs, harm-reduction programs such as drug disposal sites, and treatment, recovery, and enforcement strategies.

Brattleboro Retreat President and CEO Louis Josephson called the recommendations "pretty broad, comprehensive ideas."

"It's hard to object to any of them," he told the Reformer. "So I don't. They're all positive."

Josephson does wonder what federal funding support for opioid treatment will ultimately look like in the next budget.

He expects to learn more this spring as Congress takes up the issue.

President Donald Trump has said that he wants to make medically assisted treatment more available and affordable, according to reports. And the 2018 spending bill includes $1 billion for such efforts.

"I think everyone in the provider service category, like ourselves, is thinking how much will be available and for what," Josephson said. "I think having a good plan or priorities is a good thing so when the money flows, we can see how it matches with what Vermont needs."

The council wants to take a "two-generation approach" to the opioid crisis. Josephson hopes the Retreat's Suboxone program, which has about 160 patients coming for the medication to treat opioid dependence and talk therapy every day, can be used as a model for this initiative. It's the only program in the state offering free and licensed day care services for kids whose parents are participating.

Making such programs accessible is important to Josephson, who sees a "side benefit" in offering daycare as he recalled being asked by a mother of three children whether the Retreat's providers could watch the kids for a little longer so she could go on a job interview.

"We said, 'of course, we'd be happy to do that,'" he said.

He believes about 30 children receive daycare through the program, which began to be offered last summer and continues to grow.

Sue Avery, who hosts support groups for family members of individuals with substance abuse issues, called the recommendations "a start." She wants to see more done on tackling stigma.

"The general public has perceived negative thoughts about people struggling with substance abuse disorders and until communities can tackle this problem head on, attitudes will not improve," Avery told the Reformer. "Communities and their members have the resources to jump in and offer the best chances for self-healing and are essential to breaking the stronghold this epidemic has on America. Age-old yet as we have all heard over these many years, 'it takes a village.'"

Josephson hopes any messaging would include anti-stigmatization in its focus.

Bucossi looks at the package of recommendations as "all very important."

"I think that as a group, the council really worked hard and there was a lot of good discussion," he told the Reformer. "There were a lot of different opinions and thoughts and certainly different fields of expertise sitting in the room."

Bucossi zeroed in on first responders and their approach to providing Narcan to counteract opioid overdoses. But he believes all the recommendations will help address addiction. He has learned the importance of support from family and community in tackling the issue.

The council will meet again on May 7. Bucossi expects to receive direction on future initiatives then.

Scott created the council by executive order last May and made April 11 the state's Opioid Overdose Awareness Day. Bucossi is joined on the council by 21 other members including Rutland Mayor David Allaire, Springfield Select Board Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Thompson and Newport City Police Chief Seth DiSanto.

"I'm a very little fish in a very big ocean," Bucossi said. "This group is just a smart bunch. I pick my places where I can to help out."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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