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Lawmakers hope opioid treatment bill will get Vermont back on track

MONTPELIER — Last week, the Vermont House of Representatives passed a bill that would bring more resources to the fight against opioid use disorder.

For several years, Vermont had been successful in reducing overdose deaths by focusing on innovative treatment and harm reduction strategies, but for some, isolation of COVID-19 meant less access to these resources.

The first year of the pandemic saw overdose deaths in the state increase by nearly 70%.

“181 people have died this year,” Rep. Ann Pugh said. “Half of them are under 40. This is our future.”

Rep. Pugh chairs the House Committee on Human Services, which has spent a lot of time this legislative session on the bill H.728which lawmakers hope will give Vermont a chance to get back on track.

“I’m actually very excited about the magnitude of the various initiatives as we need to move forward,” Rep. Pugh said. “Sometimes new things, people are cautious, but I think all of these pilot projects are based on best practices, are based on research.”

The bill would fund new pilot programs to refine the state’s emergency overdose response system and bring treatment to underserved areas.

Rep. Dane Whitman, who also sits on the committee, said there are about 15,000 to 20,000 Vermonters living with opioid use disorder.

“But only about half of those Vermonters currently have access to treatment,” Rep. Whitman said.

As lawmakers drafted the bill, Rep. Whitman said transportation proved to be the biggest dilemma for those seeking treatment.

“Currently, there are eight physical centers in the state where people can access methadone, which is a medication for the treatment of opioid use disorder,” Rep. Whitman said. “Federal law recently changed to allow mobile methadone delivery, so the hope is that instead of expecting people to come for treatment in limited physical locations, we bring the treatment to people. “

But expanding treatment options is only part of the puzzle. The bill would also ensure that first responders are better trained to connect people directly to treatment, recovery and harm reduction services.

“The first time many people will reach out and call for help, unfortunately, may be a 911 call, and recognizing that point of contact where a first responder will resuscitate a person, we don’t want that to be a missed opportunity,” Rep. Whitman said.

H.728 has yet to be passed by the Vermont Senate, but Rep. Pugh said she hopes it will and will also get support from Governor Phil Scott.