Our opinion: Opioid fight is no easy battle

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For years now, Vermont has been fighting an opiate epidemic that has claimed and shattered too many lives. At times it can feel like we're stuck in a sisyphean nightmare, rolling the same stone up the same steep hill, only to have it come crashing down on so many people, especially the young.

In those times, and amid the heartbreak we've seen, it's easy to forget how far we've come in the five years since then-Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State speech to confronting the epidemic in the eye and calling for action.

But there is modest progress.

In a report released Thursday, the state's Opioid Coordination Council said wait times at treatment facilities have been reduced, naloxone has become more readily available to reverse overdoses, and emergency room visits have decreased.

The report was not all good news: Health Commissioner Mark Levine said 110 Vermonters died from opioid overdoses last year, an increase of two from 2017. That's too many. And many involved a connection to the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

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As Gov. Phil Scott said, "It's hard to use the term 'success' when people are dying At the same time, to slow down the rate is important."

But think where we were five years ago, and look what we've learned. We understand the enemy far better than we did then. We're slowly but surely working to erase the stigma of addiction and treating it as the disease it is, rather than a failure of character or as a criminal enterprise involving only "bad" people.

Perhaps most importantly we've figured out that this problem won't be solved with a magic bullet, or by one agency or institution, and the victory won't be quick or permanent. It will take all of us — parents, schools, medical and mental health providers, addiction specialists, social service providers and law enforcement, to name a few — to improve upon the progress we've made.

The state is planning to use funds from tobacco company settlements to invest up to $2.3 million in prevention, treatment and recovery initiatives to help carry the fight forward. Whether that's nearly enough is a good question for the Legislature; one can imagine any amount of money, and then conclude it isn't enough to tackle such a stubborn and pernicious problem.

But any progress in this fight is welcome, especially if it helps save lives.


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