MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — On Wednesday, state leaders gathered virtually to bring awareness to the ongoing opioid crisis, as well as legislation aimed at tearing down barriers to recovery. Brenda Siegel, a former gubernatorial candidate, lead the discussion. Since her 2018 campaign, Siegel has been a vocal advocate for progressive drug policy.
“It is long past time to allow science and lived experience to lead on this issue,” Siegel said. “There is plenty of good data that tells us we are doing it wrong, and new research and stories every single day that tell us where we need to go next.”
Siegel believes that people who have witnessed or experienced the devastation of addiction need to have a more impactful role in addressing the opioid crisis. On the campaign trail, she was known for speaking about her nephew’s 2018 overdose death. He was the son of her brother, who had previously died of a heroin overdose.
Her continued advocacy inspired Rep. Dane Whitman (D-Bennington), who reached out to her and shared how addiction has impacted his family. Whitman’s brother struggled with addiction. He was in and out of jail, rehab, detox and sober living and continued to relapse. Whitman felt a sense of helplessness and uncertainty as his brother faced that battle, worrying that attempting to help could worsen the situation.
On Wednesday, Whitman shared that story publicly. He later said that it took a lot of courage to do so. “I did not have the courage to be there for the person who needed me the most,” Whitman said. “I hope all of us today can have more courage than I did then. As we look to create a vision for Vermont after this pandemic, it may be tempting to sweep issues of substance use disorder under the rug.”
Whitman said his brother is now healthy and financially independent. “As a representative for Bennington and as a member of the House Human Services Committee, I am not going to stay silent on this issue,” Whitman said. “For anyone who’s listening, wherever you are in your recovery, whether it’s long-term or maybe just thinking that you might want to receive help for the first time, I hope we can all be here for you.”
Brenda Siegel and other advocates argue that harm reduction strategies must be considered as COVID-19 relief, and they need to be prioritized now more than ever before.
Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Chittenden) has years of experience as a health advocate, including organizing work on the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign with the Vermont Workers Center and developing and the Vermont Support Line with the Vermont Department of Mental Health.
In her time as a state representative, she said it’s become clear that addiction isn’t being taken seriously enough during the pandemic. “Just now I left committee where we were given a list of ongoing crises in Vermont, and the crisis we’re here to talk about wasn’t on that list,” Vyhovsky said.
Vyhovsky pointed out that by November of last year, 134 Vermonters had died of preventable overdose deaths in 2020. She plans to introduce a bill that would end all pre-authorization for substance use treatment, including those in the Medicaid system. Further, it would eliminate length-of-stay preauthorization on inpatient treatment, allowing a patient and their treatment team to decide how long they need to be in for instead of insurance companies.
“We must make investments in harm reduction and ending the criminalization of substance use, instead ensuring that we have on-demand choices for support for all who need them,” Vyhovsky said.
Sen. Kesha Ram (D-Chittenden) floated the idea of using the vaccine rollout as an opportunity to boost the state’s addiction response. “We could start creating a pilot program to offer the vaccine in a mobile unit that travels the state to our most transportation-distressed communities, and work to transition that to a mobile-assisted treatment unit,” Ram said. Ram is currently in talks with the Senate Health and Welfare Committee about the idea.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said he hopes to help by continuing to bring in money for the state for recovery efforts through lawsuits against corporations who bear responsibility for the opioid crisis.
Earlier this month, Vermont got a $1.5 million settlement from McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm that worked closely with pharmaceutical companies that overprescribed opioids.
“Think about how many Vermonters started going to the doctor’s office for minor medical procedures and were prescribed these incredibly addictive drugs,” Donovan said. “Their lives are ruined by forces far greater than anyone could’ve imagined.”
Last year, Vermont also played a key role in a settlement with Purdue Pharma. The company was accused of engaging in an aggressive marketing tactic in which it sent a series of alerts that may have influenced increased prescriptions for extended-release opioids.
Former Vermont U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan and her office uncovered the scheme after they launched an investigation in 2018.
Donovan added that public health strategies benefit Vermont’s public safety system, and he’s in favor of lawmakers’ open-minded approach.
“I look forward to working with you all,” Donovan said. “Certainly I’m supportive of some of the initiatives today, I can’t support all of them but that’s the democratic process, and I think as Brenda said, it’s about making people uncomfortable because that’s how we make progress.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s discussion, Gov. Phil Scott signed a proclamation naming Wednesday, February 17 as “Recovery Day” in Vermont.
“This is just one small way to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and substance use disorder, which we know affect millions of people and their families,” Scott said. “More importantly, highlighting this day also sends a message to those who are struggling that there is hope. To those who need support, please know that help and services are available, and there are many of us who care about you. Recovery is possible, and we want to do all we can to help you get there.”