Vermont mayors call for focus on opioid crisis, mental health issues

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Vermont's mayors took to the Statehouse Wednesday to lay out a litany of city-centric policy proposals for lawmakers to address in the 2018 session.

High on the group's list is more funding and data to combat the state's opioid and mental health crises, which the mayors say is having a profound effect on cities. The group, consisting of Vermont's eight mayors, was represented Wednesday by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard and Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon.

Weinberger, one of the founding members of the coalition along with Hollar and Lauzon, said the state has done impressive work on combating the opioid crisis, and that new data is showing Vermont's "Hub and Spoke" model of opioid addiction treatment is working.

The Hub and Spoke model is a way of using comprehensive, medically assisted treatment to combat opioid addiction. Hubs, usually major medical centers, are for the intensive treatment of complex addiction issues; spokes are generally local primary care practices, where patients are treated for addiction on a long-term basis, after visiting a hub.

Many addiction patients are prescribed medications such as methadone and buprenorphine in conjunction with other therapies, including counseling.

"The people that get into that model have vastly better outcomes," Weinberger said. The job now, he said, is to expand the model and support it through further funding.

Vermont's opioid epidemic was exacerbated by doctors' habit of overprescribing opioids, Weinberger said, and numerous studies have shown. Last July, new rules were put into effect to decrease the prescribing of opioids. Vermont's largest hospital has already started to decrease its prescriptions.

Weinberger called on the state to expand access to Vermont's Prescription Monitoring System, to allow for research on prescription practices, Weinberger said, adding that the state also should push for more addiction treatment in Vermont prisons.

Police officers in Vermont's cities are also ill-prepared to deal with a growing mental health crisis, said Lauzon.

"There is no standardized training course to train police officers who are dealing with an individual who is experiencing a mental health crisis." Lauzon said "We are asking them all too often to respond to situations for which they simply are not qualified."

Lauzon said more space is needed for the care of people with mental health issues. He called for the creation of a state-owned and operated facility to provide court-ordered mental health assessments and treatments to criminal defendants.

When asked if a proposal for a new, privately-run 925-bed prison facility — floated by Gov. Phil Scott — would satisfy the need the mayors are identifying, Hollar said the group had not discussed it.

"But clearly as a state we need additional resources," Hollar said.

On the environmental front, the mayors said increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations would promote the purchase of cleaner cars. They're calling for the state to create an independent body to track pollutants in the state's lakes, rivers and streams.

And the mayors say the state should adopt the ESSEX plan, pitched as a partnership between between state government and Vermont's electric utilities. The plan would impose a gradually increasing fee on carbon, which would be returned to ratepayers on a monthly basis in the form of lower effective electric rates.

Vermont's cities are its economic hubs, the mayors said, but they need the state's help, in the form of tax credits and support in providing affordable housing, to stay competitive.

"Let's be really clear about something," Leonard said. "We are competing right now, we are competing for modern industry, we are competing for modern communities, we are competing for the 21st century workforce."

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