Community meeting discusses opiate abuse and treatment

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By Ellyn Gaydos
For The Essex Reporter

A Nov. 17 Opiate Community Forum was held at Burlington’s Main Street Landing as a follow up to the Governor’s state of the state address and a June forum on opiate addiction. A panel of professionals who work closely with opiate addiction in Chittenden county and northern Vermont presided over the sparsely attended meeting. The gathering was part of a four-tiered approach to tackling Vermont’s growing opiate problem that includes developing treatment, community, prevention and neighborhoods in recovery.

One of the main questions the meeting sought to answer was, “How are people getting treated in our area?” The panelists presented a multifaceted, often interdependent approach. The Howard Center distributes Naloxone (a medication that reverses the effects of an overdose), needles, has 24-hour detox support, as well as outpatient therapy. The Day One program run by the UVM medical center offers individual and group therapy. Maple Leaf Farm provides inpatient rehabilitation for addicts, lasting up to four weeks. The Vermont department of Corrections provides social services and aids in finding employment and housing for former inmates in an effort to reduce recidivism. Sober houses are another asset to addicts as well as Suboxone, a prescription drug used to curb addiction cravings.

Quitting opioids is much more than just the detox process, as William Keithcart of Day One is quick to point out, “Recovery is a lifestyle change and most people have no idea what that means.” For clients at Maple Leaf, it means finding them a place to live, a job and a way to remain in a safe environment after inpatient treatment. Opioid dependence is not usually an addict’s only dependence or diagnosis, but often therapy is used to treat co-occurring disorders or a background of trauma.

Dr. Fred Holmes, a retired Suboxone prescriber, has known some of his patients since they were children. In addition to helping them curb intense cravings he also encourages “picturing a life that is beyond the substance abuse… try to have people connect with dreams they may have had or forgotten.”

Although the panelists put up a unified front in the treatment of the burgeoning heroin epidemic, there were people who pointed out very real flaws with the system. One mother whose son died of a heroin overdose voiced her opposition to the “one shot and your out,” policy for residential programs such as Maple Leaf. Expulsion can leave addicts back on the streets or in the worse case victim of an overdose. In 2013 alone, 68 Vermonters died of opioid related causes.

Inpatient treatment provided by the state lasts only two to three weeks, which many think is too short. Another family member affected by heroin stated of rehab, “This sounds like a 1970s alcohol treatment program” that doesn’t fit the “young men from upper middle class families with no history of trauma.” “I don’t think we know anything,” one mother said, whose son attended eight treatment programs before dying of an overdose.

Over-enrollment is probably the most pressing problem facing heroin abuse programs in Vermont. Currently the Howard Center has an active waiting list of 300 people, but can only take in five new people a week. Although the Governor pledged to address this issue, many remain skeptical that adequate funds will be funneled into the expansion of opiate addiction treatment programs. Dana Poverman of the Howard Center added, “even if there were sufficient funds, there’s not sufficient workforce.” Many doctors opt out of prescribing Suboxone because of the stigma associated with drug-addicted populations. But as William Keithcart pointed out, “People would be shocked at the number of professionals on methadone in Chittenden County.”

In addition to working with the growing number of addicts many panelists and audience members expressed a need to address prevention among young people. They advise that we need better education, more compassion for addicts and help to reintegrate former addicts into their home communities.

Keithcart posed the question, “What do you do once you get this fantastic euphoric feeling? Nothing else matters… it takes over your soul.” Poverman replied, “When people are struggling what we need to be saying is please come back.”

Visit unitedwaycc.org to learn more and participate in the next community discussion.