A visiting reporter should not cause us to lose perspective about what we already know about Bennington: That this is a healthy, hardworking, and optimistic town comprised of thoughtful community members who make it a great place to live. It’s unfortunate that an article in the New York Times could paint with such broad brushstrokes an unflattering picture of everyday life in our community.
The Times offered a negative portrait, but it’s important that we look beyond the sensationalism and consider the problem of opiate addiction which is not unique to Bennington.
While it’s true that we have seen a steady increase in heroin and opiate abuse, I wouldn’t use the term "epidemic" to describe what’s happening here in Bennington. Despite the journalistic license taken by the reporter, this is not a community with a drug addict behind every barn or on every street corner.
The stories our clinicians typically hear at UCS are less sensational but still sobering. We hear often about people who take pain medication prescribed by a doctor after an injury or surgery who discover they cannot stop taking the meds, and who then fall on hard times, start buying pills on the street and who then turn to a more easily accessible and cheaper drug like heroin.
This kind of story is not unique to Bennington -- it’s happening in Vermont, throughout the Northeast and across the country.
To further clarify the situation portrayed in the story, here are some facts:
* There are approximately 3,000 Vermonters statewide currently taking buprenorphine (a physician prescribed alternative for those addicted to opiates).
* There are five very committed and trained physicians who are treating a combined 250 people with such treatment in our area.
* While there are many people who can’t get to treatment, there are less than 25 people who currently travel to Methadone programs in Rutland, Brattleboro, Burlington, etc.
* There are over 400 individuals in treatment here at UCS for alcohol and other substance abuse issues.
We recognize there are many people in the community struggling with addiction who are not actively seeking help. We also know that highly publicized drug sweeps in our area resulted in arrests of mostly users who occasionally sold drugs to maintain their own habit while the major drug dealers have eluded the efforts of law enforcement to this point. As many have said, we can’t just arrest our way out of this problem.
Providing treatment to an addicted individual at the time they need it most is going to require more resources. Methadone treatment for Bennington County residents should be more accessible than Rutland or Brattleboro where there are long waiting lists, despite the fact that the relatively low numbers of our folks currently in treatment make a Bennington program less than viable.
We absolutely need more physicians who are willing and able to provide medicated assisted treatment. In turn, UCS needs the resources to support those doctors and their patients with follow up, counseling, and case management as they work to get their lives back on track.
On a positive note, the legislature is deliberating a measure that would allow local courts to screen and refer individuals amenable to treatment following drug related offenses. We support this legislation, paired with the appropriate resources, to provide treatment and possibly avoid life-altering incarceration.
It’s also imperative that we address the social determinants of health that are critical to recovery. These include good jobs, family supports, decent housing, and hope for the future. Sadly, medication alone may not keep someone from using again when things get tough.
So I hope we can view this problem realistically; we do have people in our community, and there are more of them lately, who are addicted and who are not able to help themselves, but we knew that. We also know that we can no longer wait to see if this trend will reverse itself.
We have an opportunity to deal with the problem on several fronts, medically, legally, and socially, and if we can do that I believe we’ll have a real impact. Bennington will continue to be a great place to live and raise a family, just like it is today.
Ralph Provenza is executive director at UCS.