The governor called for more opiate treatment in Vermont to help addicts during his State of the State address. But now a report by the Health Department says slow down. Health officials say Vermont's expansion of services are still being rolled out, and say it's not prudent to build-out more capacity if recent additions cut through the state's treatment back-log.
Before a joint panel of Senate committees, Vermont's Health Commissioner told legislators that by this summer, the state's capacity to treat opiate addicts should be double its ability from a year prior.
"All these efforts are full-speed ahead," Dr. Harry Chen said.
The state is currently treating more than 3,600 for addiction and nearly 1,000 more are waiting to get into a program.
In his State of the State address focused solely on the opiate issue, Gov. Peter Shumlin directed communities not to block treatment facilities from moving in and urged legislators to act.
"Let's start treating drug addiction as the immediate health crisis that it is by dramatically increasing treatment across Vermont," Shumlin said in the address Jan. 8.
But a recent report from the Department of Health concludes "no efforts to pursue service expansion should be pursued at this time."
Confused legislators asked Commissioner Chen to explain why.
"I think we also have to be mindful that until we find out what our steady state is, we really don't know what the needs are," Chen said.
Chen says Vermont's treatment model, which offers larger hub centers in bigger communities and smaller spoke facilities in less populated areas, is still being deployed. That, he says, makes it impossible to truly assess unmet need.
"The growing demand for treatment services have resulted in waitlists. We certainly expect our dramatically enhanced capacity to cut down on them," Chen said.
Chen clarified that his reserved approach only applies to health department treatment efforts, not to reforms proposed in other areas of government like an expedited legal process for offenders.
Legislators say they believe more action will ultimately be need, based on the stories they hear from their constituents.
Gov. Shumlin cited statistics in his State of the State indicating treatment for opiate addicts has grown 700 percent over the last decade. But some skeptics wonder if the rate of use has actually risen during that time or only treatment since Vermont began seriously tackling the issue in 2002.
As for Commissioner Chen, he says he has no doubts that Vermonters are more addicted to opiates than ever before.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears says he thought the wait-list numbers sounded low. Chen says they compiled the figures by adding numbers reported by the state's treatment centers. He also emphasized that communities like his-- Bennington-- have been harmed by the community's unwillingness to welcome treatment facilities, forcing some to commute 65 miles every day to receive treatment.
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