Story + Video: Announcement of drug abuse screening grant swerves into politics

BURLINGTON — Gov. Peter Shumlin’s announcement of a $10 million grant for substance abuse screening and intervention was hijacked by a litany of other issues.

At a news conference Friday at the Community Health Center, reporters had few questions about the planned screening and intervention program, but were eager for answers about a string of fentanyl overdoses, Shumlin’s recent trip to Las Vegas and the problematic rollout of Vermont Health Connect.

Major Glenn Hall of the Vermont State Police said investigators are working with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and partners in surrounding states to identify the source of the fentanyl, which is being passed off as heroin.

Fentanyl is a powerful narcotic 50 times more potent than heroin, said Dr. Harry Chen, Vermont’s health commissioner.

Officers are still probing connections between three overdose deaths from the drug in Addison County this month and a fourth, non-fatal overdose.

No police drug seizures have tested as fentanyl in lab results, Hall said, but other cases are being expedited to try to determine if there is more of the drug still on the streets.

“We don’t always know what’s in these heroin bags,” Hall said. “The people that are buying this stuff don’t always know what it is as well.”

Chen advised Vermonters who might come in contact with fentanyl not to take the drugs alone, and in the case of an overdose, to be aware of the state’s “good samaritan” law that protects people who report a potential overdose from arrest.

He said there are two pilot sites that distribute naloxone — a drug effective in reversing opiate overdoses — one in Burlington and and another in White River Junction.

Chen did not provide specifics on the state’s plans to expand naloxone distribution, but suggested Vermont will work to put the nasal injector in the hands of more police and emergency personnel.

The five hub centers in the Vermont Care Alliance for Opioid Addiction might make good naloxone distribution sites as the state looks to expand its program, Chen suggested.

Vermont lags well behind its neighbor to the south in putting naloxone in the hands of people who can use it to save lives.

Massachusetts has 15 naloxone distribution sites for people over age 18 who complete a class. More than 2,000 overdoses have been reversed since the state began distribution in 2007.

Chen drew a connection between the overdoses and the reason he and Shumlin were at the Health Center for Friday’s news conference.

“In one minute we’re talking about screening adolescents for substance abuse and the next we’re talking about heroin or fentanyl overdoses,” he said.

Early screening and intervention work with young people to prevent them from developing a substance abuse problem is an important part of confronting addiction in the state, Chen said.

The $10 million five-year grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will help Vermont incorporate substance use screening and intervention into primary care for all Vermonters.

“I view this as a kick-start for that happening throughout Vermont starting with our Federally Qualified Health Centers,” Chen said.

The program will begin with a focus on low-income 18- to 25-year-olds, but will help Vermont build the infrastructure to extend the screenings for all Vermonters, Chen said.

When the grant money runs out, the program’s cost will be absorbed by Medicaid and private insurers, he said.

Vermont and five other states received the grant over the summer, and eligible health centers in the state have completed training and are prepared to launch the program.

Governor says he hasn’t read Newsweek story critical of exchange

When reporters peppered the governor with questions about a Newsweek article that picked apart the state’s rollout its online health insurance exchange, Shumlin said he had not read the story.

The piece alleges that his administration glossed over problems with Vermont Health Connect in its zeal to leverage federal dollars to position the state for its planned universal health care system.

It also says that a presentation purporting to be a live demonstration of the site in July was essentially faked, giving the public false confidence that the system further along than it was.

Asked if that was the case, Shumlin said, “Not to my knowledge, No. 1, and No. 2, I haven’t read the story so it’s tough for me to respond to the question.

“When we’ve had information, we’ve shared it, I don’t think there’s been any secrets,” he added.

There will be an independent investigation into the rollout, Shumlin said, and his administration is working to get the site fully operational.

Shumlin balks at questions about CGI donations to DGA

Asked about the more than $100,000 in donations from CGI, the tech firm that built the state’s exchange website, to the Democratic Governors Association, Shumlin said he had never spoken to the company in his capacity as chairman of that organization.

“I have not ever spoken to CGI about anything to with the DGA,” he said.

In an icy exchange with Seven Days’ columnist Paul Heintz, Shumlin acknowledged making fundraising visits with potential donors to the Democratic Governors Association during a recent trip to Las Vegas.

He declined to comment on whom he met with, and referred further questions to the association.

“Will the DGA respond to my questions?” Heintz asked.

“That’s up to the DGA,” Shumlin said.

“You run the DGA though don’t you? The DGA just isn’t responding to any of my questions,” Heintz said.

“Paul … Paul,” said Shumlin speaking over Heintz, “We know you have a difficult relationship with the DGA, and you’ll have to work that out with the DGA.”

Heintz and other reporters were not allowed to attend DGA retreat held in Manchester in September.

Shumlin also declined to say if he raised any money for his own re-election campaign while in Las Vegas.

Morgan True

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