Lessons From Vermont: How One State Came Together to Tackle the Opioid Epidemic
Stories surrounding opioid addiction tend to be overwhelmingly negative and dire, often leaving people with little hope. This week – which President Obama proclaimed as Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week – I’d like to shift the conversation and talk about how one state has taken extraordinary measures in responding to the opioid epidemic.
Last month, I had the privilege of applauding Vermont’s response to the opioid epidemic at the State Legislative Leaders Foundation Conference. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin made national headlines in January 2014 by devoting his entire state-of-the-state address on the topic of fighting heroin and opioid addiction. At that time, most governors and other policymakers had their heads in the sand. Since then, the media has helped put this problem where it needs to be – in the faces of all Americans.
Vermont was once like many other states, failing to provide the effective treatments for opioid addiction. The story that hasn’t been widely told by the news media is how the state shifted from being a victim of the opioid epidemic to being a role model for saving lives and treating addiction. The key to the state’s success was getting many different groups to work together.
Vermont reduced the supply of prescription drugs by educating doctors, adopting safer opioid prescribing guidelines and using an electronic system to monitor how many prescriptions are written. Lives were also saved by expanding access to naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. Vermont also dramatically improved access to addiction treatment by coordinating care between the medical community and addiction treatment providers and by making medications to treat opioid addiction much more widely and immediately available. Nationwide, there is a shortage of doctors who can prescribe buprenorphine, one of the most effective treatments for opioid addiction; Vermont is one of only very few states with enough doctors to treat every person in need.
Although Gov. Shumlin is not seeking reelection, we hope his leadership around the opioid epidemic continues to serve as a model for all elected officials – a clear statement that individuals, state and federal agencies, corporations, insurance companies and provider organizations can take actions and make decisions that seismically shift our country’s recurring addiction problems for the better. Proclamations concerning addiction, like the one made this week by President Obama to observe Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, must be followed by funding for prevention, treatment, and recovery services at a level appropriate to the scope of this public health crisis.
Samuel A. Ball, PhD
Dr. Ball is President and CEO of Center on Addiction