BENNINGTON — Governor Peter Shumlin visited the Hawthorn Recovery Center on Monday morning to congratulate existing efforts in fighting the ongoing substance abuse in Bennington.
There are currently 310 patients in the area actively being treated for addiction. Hawthorn also doubled enrollment in the past two years by increasing its capacity from 100 to 200. In about a year and a half, 193 patients have been seen, Dr. Nels Kloster, addiction psychiatrist said.
"I came down here to say congratulations," Shumlin said. "Really, when this all started, we knew we had a demand and we know the demand is growing. We were asking folks to either get in line, which you don't do for other diseases or travel long distances."
Shumlin spoke on four points that he's particularly proud about. The first regards people recovering from the disease of addiction and how Vermont is the only state with treatment centers that say "we'll help you get your life back, you'll never see a judge, a prosecutor or a criminal record."
"We've stopped saying waiting lists were okay. By building centers like this across the state, we will hopefully end the waiting list," Shumlin said. "We're treating 75 percent more people than two years ago. There's still some lines because of the increased demands, but not because we're not building out the centers."
He praised the rescue kits or naloxone kits that have saved hundreds of lives of people who could have died on the streets. Lastly, he thanked Vermonters for their change in attitude and talking about the disease long before anyone else would.
"Vermonters now are literally changing their attitudes about addiction and opioid addiction," Shumlin said. "There's still a lot of work left to do."
At the end of October, Southwestern Vermont Health Care (SVHC), United Counseling Services (UCS) and The Hawthorn Recovery Center launched the Intensive Medicated Assisted Treatment (IMAT), but can only serve up to 30 patients in the first year.
"Even so, by having a special addiction care (facility) in Bennington, it's still not been enough to meet the full needs of the community," Kloster said. "There's still limitation based on regulations on prescribing suboxone, and we are working to get a hub into Bennington to meet the needs of the entire population."
The IMAT program provides patients with daily doses under clinical support. Not everyone is eligible for the program and since it started, 50 people have been referred and half has been screened as an entry protocol.
Different from the state's traditional "hub and spoke" approach, and in addition to the dosing, IMAT offers "biological, psychological and social assessments, randomly required urine screening, group therapy, case management" and counseling, according to UCS.
"It's not a hub because there's no storage of medication," Ralph Provenza, executive director of UCS said. "We needed some help from the state to allow us to waive some of the pharmacy rules so that people could be prescribed a weeks worth of medication. They come in on day one and take it and on day two we count to make sure the serial numbers match so that we know they didn't sell day two on the street."
Behind IMAT is Dr. John McLellan of SVHC and Paul Dilonno, manager of substance abuse services at UCS. Ten out of the 50 are involved in daily dosing under Dr. McLellan as well as clinicians and counselors at UCS.
Ralph Provenza acknowledged that with the rise in demand for such treatment, there will need to be some sort of expansion of this unique model to help those struggling with addiction in the community.
"In six months I think we'll be at capacity," Provenza said. "We know we'll have to continue to be innovative. It's taken a while to grow, but we're pleased to be able to say we're treating people and now figure out where we go when we're at capacity."
The Governor pointed out the prominence of painkillers and how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advertised a drug during the Super Bowl commercials that would relieve symptoms of another FDA-approved drug.
"This year they approved oxycontin for kids, you can't make this stuff up," Shumlin said. "So, while we're watching our football games for FDA drugs to relieve the symptoms of the opiates we're passing out like candy, you have to ask the question, how are we going to get ourselves out of this mess?"
The next step for officials is to get a hub provider in Bennington by proving there's a demand with numbers and recruiting and retaining physicians.
"It's about trying to reduce the amount of prescriptions for pain, as well as getting in the communities and the families in terms of preventing that way upstream whether it be opiates, tobacco or alcohol, or whether it be the next addiction that's around the corner because we all know it's there," Commissioner of the Department of Health Dr. Harry Chen advised.
"We've got to have a conversation," Shumlin said. "We have to stop this madness and change our attitude toward painkillers in America. There is no reason to rest, we've got a huge challenge."
—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.