People & Places

Gobeille: Opioid crisis ‘is ubiquitous. It’s literally everywhere’

Al Gobeille
Al Gobeille, secretary of the state Agency of Human Services, speaks Thursday in Rutland about opioid addiction in Vermont. Photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

RUTLAND — The head of the state government’s largest agency was speaking Thursday in Rutland when a little girl darted in front of him.

“Can I get a high-five?” Al Gobeille, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, asked the toddler.

She kept running, then whizzed past him again.

“Maybe a fist bump?” the secretary tried, putting out a closed hand.

The toddler seemed to be having so much fun she didn’t even notice him. She kept smiling, giggling and picking up speed while many in the crowd listening to Gobeille kept their eyes on her until she sped off to another part of the room.

Gobeille would later learn the girl was born addicted to opiates. He had come to Rutland to talk about the scourge of substance abuse in Vermont.

Gobeille spoke Thursday at a regular meeting of Project Vision, a coalition of community groups, churches and government agencies that banded together to provide a comprehensive solution to problems caused by opiate abuse in the city.

Much of the secretary’s talk focused on opioid addiction in Vermont and how the state is working to address it.

Gobeille, whose agency has about 3,800 employees and an annual budget of $2.5 billion, said the state doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s working on getting more of them.

About 6,800 addicts in Vermont are receiving treatment Gobeille said. With the recent opening of an emergency treatment hub in St. Albans in a temporary site, the waiting list for those seeking services is shrinking.

But, the actual number of addicts in Vermont not seeking treatment, but in need of it, Gobeille said, “may be” in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 people.

He added of the treatment currently being provided, “We may be at 6,800, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be to actually reverse this trend.”

Gobeille, in addition to his role as AHS secretary, serves as the the co-chair of the Governor’s Opioid Coordination Council.

The council is made up of 21 members from different fields and perspectives from across the state, including Attorney General TJ Donovan and Rutland Mayor David Allaire. The goal is implement drug prevention strategies in cities and towns around Vermont.

Gobeille’s talk Thursday came on the heels of news last week in Brattleboro of 12 drug overdoses in a little more than a day, including one fatality.

This week, Vermont State Police have been investigating two deaths that took place Wednesday in Londonderry.

In one of those deaths, of a 22-year-old man, evidence of drug use was located in the apartment where the body was found, according to police. In the other death, police said a 41-year-old woman collapsed in her home and could not be revived. It’s not known if those two deaths are connected, police said, adding they are awaiting results of toxicology tests and autopsies.

Also this week, Gobeille said, a high school principal and a member of the council he co-chairs called alerting him of another person in Vermont dying of an opioid overdose.

‘We get up every day trying to figure out how we can do this differently,” he said.

Gobeille, a Rhode Island native, served as the chair of the health care-regulating Green Mountain Care Board before his appointment to the post of human services secretary by Gov. Phil Scott.

In addition, he is a restaurant owner, and he told the crowd Thursday that “a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” he supervised an eatery in Rutland called Lums.

Gobeille told the crowd personal stories of restaurant workers he assisted who were battling addiction and those he tried to help but who overdosed and died.

“This crisis is ubiquitous. It is everywhere,” he said. “It’s literally in our families, in our schools, in our churches. We need to all understand that.”

He said programs on the local level, such as Rutland’s Project Vision, serve as a model that other communities across Vermont are looking to replicate.

He said while statewide initiatives are looking at the big picture, local programs are vital in seeing a more granular picture.

“You’ve got to deal with it house to house,” he said.

Later as the meeting came to a close, a woman rose to speak, telling Gobeille and the crowd that the little girl so carefree as she ran past him earlier in the meeting had a rough start in life.

The girl, the woman said, was born addicted to opiates and was placed in foster care. Since that time, the woman added, the girl has been adopted by a family and lives in the city’s northwest neighborhood, which has been hit hard by the drug epidemic.

“It’s really easy for us to see the northwest neighborhood as the heart of the opiate problem,” the woman said as she told the story of the little girl.

“It’s also,” the woman said of the neighborhood, “the heart of the solution of the problem.”

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Alan J. Keays

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  • Jim Candon

    As the Secretary of AHS, Gobeille controls the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System. That system tracks all dangerous Rx drugs ( those having the potential to be habit forming and subject to abuse) including narcotic painkillers. The VPMS data tracks the Rx from the prescriber to the pharmacy to the patient. However, the VPMS is off limits to law enforcement in Vermont. Many times law enforcement has asked for warrantless access to the VPMS to help identify the doctor shoppers and problem over-prescribers but to no avail. The legislature has still not allowed access. This has been going on for years. Most, if not all opiate addicted folks got their start on Rx opiates before turning to heroin.

    For those that object to “criminalizing ” the identification of drug seekers, think of this: those that do get arrested appear before a judge very quickly ( intervention). They are directed to treatment and are kept under the direction of the courts. They ultimately Do Not go to jail and most often get clean and have no criminal record. It can be argued that “hitting rock bottom” was for them to be standing in court before a judge. For many, recovery begins at that moment.

    • Pat McGarry

      Why does it seem that “recovery” is usually a daily dose of methadone or suboxone (each a schedule II opioid)?

      Why not give alcoholics a glass of wine each hour as part of recovery? They do it in Canada: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/managed-alcohol-programs-canada-australia-1.3921655

    • Neil Johnson

      The over prescription of opiates would the be easiest thing to investigate on planet earth. We have the trail, in writing from doctor to pharmacist to “patient”. But we have chosen not to do this, we actually changed laws in Vermont to prevent this investigation.

      Bringing back the ability to investigate would at the very least stop further addiction or sharply reduce it. Why are we not doing this??? Think about it.

      We just had lobbyists spending $5 million dollars per year in Montpelier. Follow the money, big pharma, medical systems…….have we no soul?

  • Bruce Wilkie

    Dick Nixon started the “war on drugs” in 1968. It lasted for 49 years. We lost/

    • Ali Bernard

      You could say it was re-started under Reagan/ Clinton.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    We have too many public officials who coddle even the dealers of this poison and stick to the philosophy that “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem”.

    Sure, it makes no sense to criminalize the simple act of feeding one’s addiction. But when someone criminally victimizes other people or neglects their own family members due to their spending all their resources on drugs or becoming incapacitated that we DO need to deal with that as a criminal justice issue. What we need is to acknowledge that although calling addiction a disease creates an attractive panache of victimhood, we also need to admit that there is a huge element of personal responsibility involved and that allowing ones self to become a slave to a substance is a human failing.

    • Neil Johnson

      Put one doctor on trial for over prescription and watch things change drastically regardless of outcome.

      My friend wanted to use CBD to curb his pain rather than opiates. Do you realize the laws say you can only use CBD and Marijuana as a last resort? Think big pharma wrote and paid their lobbyists for that law?

      You have to have a locked bag and a license to get medical marijuana but you can walk out of any pharmacy with 300 tabs of oxy and what ever drug with no questions asked.

      All these opiods were pushed based upon a bogus report/inaccurate/fake new/science that people don’t get addicted to it. Yes they don’t get addicted when in the hospital under doctors care and used for a short period of time. Oh…..they didn’t talk much about that condition did they?

  • rosemariejackowski

    Lost and ignored in this war on drugs are all those innocent victims who are caught in the crossfire. – the doctors who are intimidated into not prescribing drugs to chronic pain patients, the patients who have lost confidence in their doctors, innocent by-standers who are sometimes the victims of home invasion, business owners victims of robbery, Grandfathers and grandmothers who are forced to pee in a cup in order to get their prescription. Think about that: imagine being disabled, elderly, arthritic and having to pull down your slacks, then your pantyhose, then your underwear and then straddle a toilet to pee in a cup. Maneuvers like that almost require the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast.
    Maybe it is time for a new approach. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

  • Neil Johnson

    It’s legal for medicinal use, so that part of the argument doesn’t hold much merit.

    • Michael Olcott

      yeah but you give up the right to purchase any new firearms through a FFL. sorry not worth giving up my 2A for pain relief nor should anyone be forced to choose.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    The Federal Govt justifiably limits the 2A rights of convicted felons, the dangerously mentally ill and those who commit acts of domestic violence. If only we could deny the vote to those same classes of individuals, for the same reason, since the pen is mightier than the sword. Curious that it is the Feds who regulate the guns with those criteria but it is the states who want to regulate the vote, especially Vermont which allows someone in prison serving life without parole to cast a vote. If you’re fit enough to vote, you should be considered eligible to own a gun.