There’s plenty of money to tackle the opiate epidemic in Vermont and around the country. It’s just a matter of getting people to agree to spend the money.
That’s the message Vermont Congressman Peter Welch delivered Monday to a who’s who of health care providers, law enforcement officials, parents and people from the myriad sectors working together to fight the trafficking and abuse of heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs that may or may not be prescribed to the person selling or using them.
“There is literally nothing partisan about this, (although) they may argue about the money,” Welch said, later adding, “Don’t let me or anyone else tell you there’s no money. … It’s your money.”
The roundtable discussion was hosted by Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley, whose president/CEO, Scot McCray, said the audience was packed with people involved in all manner of social safety services.
On the panel, Kelly Dougherty, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said progress has been made in hospitals, with Medicaid assistance taking “a huge step.” She said Copley Hospital in Morrisville has “recovery coaches” at the ready who can report to the emergency room to help with “rapid access interventions.”
The problem is what happens to those people when they leave the ER, Dougherty said. There’s next to no housing, especially sober housing, for addicts with nowhere left to turn. And jobs are scarce for people with addiction who may have had run-ins with the law.
Dawn and Greg Tatro, Johnson residents whose 26-year-old daughter, Jenna, died of an overdose in their basement in February, said they spent money and six years moving Jenna into treatment centers and sober living facilities around the country.
“I used to Google ‘sober living’ and not find anything” nearby, Dawn Tatro said. “Sober houses get their self-esteem up, give them a focus.”
The couple announced Monday they have bought the former St. John’s Catholic Church, which they hope to turn into a center for recovering addicts. The Tatros will also speak at an opiate forum next week, June 25, at Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in Hyde Park.
Greg Tatro read a letter that an anonymous person left at the family business, after the letter writer had read and heard about the Tatros’ efforts to form Jenna’s Promise, the nonprofit named after their daughter.
The letter read, in part, “I use her death as a driving force for my own recovery. … This is what she’d want.”
Dan Franklin, director of the North Central Vermont Recovery Center in Morrisville, said the “third wheel,” along with housing and jobs, is transportation. Many people in recovery can’t afford a car; others have suspended licenses.
“It’s a huge problem in rural Vermont and rural America,” Franklin said.
Another woman in the audience added that child care is also a big issue for addicts, at least as much as for parents who aren’t dependent on substances.
Said Welch, “You’re basically talking about all of the basics of infrastructure that you need. These are things that, on their own terms, we should be investing in.”
‘All the same people’
One thing that can’t be funded is human empathy. Will Eberle of the Vermont Agency of Human Services noted that empathy and stigma are two sides of the same issue, and “it takes a lot for a person to move from the side of stigma to empathy.”
Michelle Salvador, a substance abuse consultant with the health department, said Vermont’s attitude toward some once-illicit substances are relaxing — craft beer is a tourism boon and marijuana is legal and may soon be more available. She said national statistics suggest 14 percent of kids try some substances before age 13; in Lamoille County, it’s 20 percent.
Welch, coming back to the idea that the opiate scourge transcends all political boundaries, said he sits on the Congressional Rural Caucus, which includes 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. He said rural parts of America all face the same kind of problems, and not just with drugs.
“It’s all the same people, trying to make their way in life,” he said. “As horrible as it is, it’s a topic that brings us together.