BURLINGTON — Officials unveiled several new partnerships and initiatives Thursday meant to help address the region’s opiate addiction crisis, which claimed a record number of lives last year.
Figures released recently by the Vermont Health Department show the number of fatal opiate overdoses in Vermont jumped from 76 in 2015 to 105 in 2016.
Three years ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin brought the opioid crisis to the forefront in his State of the State address. “In the time since, many individuals have worked extremely hard on this issue and achieved important successes,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger at a news conference to announce the new efforts.
“Despite this hard work by so many for so long, it is also unmistakably clear that this opioid crisis has continued to deepen, taking lives at an unprecedented rate and ravaging the community,” Weinberger said.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo pointed to data from the Department for Children and Families from 2015 showing that in 51 percent of 276 cases where children younger than 6 were placed in state custody, the reason was the parent or guardian’s opiate use.
“If the number of deaths doesn’t grip you, then the number of children growing up in fractured households should,” del Pozo said. “It’s literally tearing families apart.”
Hospital to reduce opiate prescriptions
The mayor and police chief were joined by recently appointed Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, Health Department Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen and the University of Vermont Medical Center’s chief medical officer, Dr. Stephen Leffler, to outline the new partnerships and initiatives as well as a set of guiding principles for the battle against opiate addiction.
One of the principles is that “prescription opioids can be as dangerous as heroin.” Although people do overdose on prescribed medication, many more become addicted and eventually turn to cheaper street drugs like heroin.
The Burlington Police Department analyzed federal data for Medicare Part D beneficiaries from 2014, finding that Vermont doctors prescribed opioids to those patients at a 17 percent higher rate than the average for other New England states.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Vermont doctors prescribe more opiates overall than their counterparts in other states, because Part D beneficiaries are only 14 percent of insured Vermonters.
Chen declined to comment on the Medicare data, which he said “limited the universe” of patients. But he said he agrees that Vermont doctors were overprescribing opioids in 2014 and continue to do so.
“We prescribed enough opiates in Vermont in 2015 to give every man, woman and child a bottle of 100 Percocets. That’s just too much,” Chen said.
There are other data sets using all patient populations that show Vermont is in the middle when it comes to prescribing opioids, “but it’s still too much,” he added.
Leffler said the UVM Medical Center is “committed to driving down the amount of opiates that we are prescribing” and greater transparency around its prescribing practices. To that end, the hospital will release prescription data sometime in the next 90 days, he said.
Leffler provided no detail about what data the hospital is planning to release, saying only that “we’ll be transparent with data to show we’re having effective results” in prescribing fewer opiates.
More timely data collection planned
Representatives of the Health Department and the Chittenden County state’s attorney’s office said they are both committed to providing more timely data on overdose deaths to help inform local partnerships such as the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance.
Chen said his department will begin providing monthly fatal overdose totals by county to agencies and community groups working to tackle the crisis, instead of publishing annual figures as has been its practice. George said that, because her office is legally required to be notified when any untimely deaths occur in the county, it will compile weekly reports of likely overdose deaths for the same purpose.
The Winooski and South Burlington police departments will join Burlington’s CommunityStat program, which aims to track data related to opiate use, such as how quickly drug users released from prison come back in contact with the criminal justice system.
It’s hoped that data will allow police, social workers and treatment providers to track high-risk users and get them help before they overdose or commit further crimes, del Pozo said. Adding the two neighboring cities will help identify and assist those people, the chief said.
Waiting lists for drug treatment persist
That jibes with another of the principles for tackling the opiate crisis officials laid out Thursday, which is the idea that police should give amnesty to users seeking help for addiction and send them to treatment.
Currently, that’s a difficult proposition because there is still a statewide waiting list for so-called hub providers, large-scale state-supported centers that provide medication-assisted treatment.
That wait list has decreased steadily over the last three years as capacity has grown, but the most recent figures from the Health Department show 191 people waiting for placement at a treatment hub. The lion’s share of people waiting are in Chittenden County, the state’s most populous.
Officials did not provide figures showing how long people are waiting, just how many, but in October 2015, when close to 400 people were on the waiting list, the average period a person had spent waiting to enter the Chittenden Clinic in South Burlington was 358 days.
While there are other treatment options, the hubs are the primary entry point for drug users looking to get clean.
Del Pozo said his department has encountered other challenges getting people who are arrested directly to treatment, though he didn’t go into detail. Six people have been arrested and sent by “special arrangement” to treatment programs, but all six were kicked out of those programs, del Pozo said.
“So we’re looking at a more effective way to deliver that treatment,” the chief said, adding that he planned to announce how that will work soon.
Another of the principles outlined Thursday is a commitment to tackling the opiate crisis as a public health problem, and del Pozo said his officers and their state and federal colleagues have not lost sight of that goal either.
His department has strong partnerships with the Drug Enforcement Administration, del Pozo said, and the “volume of major heroin dealing arrests” in Burlington has increased.
The “risk price” — a term the chief borrowed from finance — needs to be increased to deter out-of-state drug dealers from trafficking in Vermont, he said. Most drugs come to the state from criminal operations in major cities within driving distance, according to him.
“We need to make enough arrests to send a signal to Boston and New York that this is not easy pickings,” he said.