By Alan Keays, VTDigger
The head of Vermont’s largest agency was speaking Thursday, July 13, in Rutland when a little girl darted in front of him.
“Can I get a high-five?” Al Gobeille, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, asked the toddler.
She kept running, then whizzed past him again. “Maybe a fist bump?” the secretary tried, putting out a closed hand.
The toddler seemed to be having so much fun she didn’t even notice him. She kept smiling, giggling and picking up speed while many in the crowd listening to Gobeille kept their eyes on her until she sped off to another part of the room.
Gobeille would later learn the girl was born addicted to opiates. He had come to Rutland to talk about the scourge of substance abuse in Vermont.
Gobeille spoke Thursday at a regular meeting of Project Vision, a coalition of community groups, churches and government agencies that banded together to provide a comprehensive solution to problems caused by opiate abuse in the city. Much of the secretary’s talk focused on opioid addiction in Vermont and how the state is working to address it. Gobeille, whose agency has about 3,800 employees and an annual budget of $2.5 billion, said the state doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s working on getting more of them.
About 6,800 addicts in Vermont are receiving treatment, Gobeille said. With the recent opening of an emergency treatment hub in St. Albans in a temporary site, the waiting list for those seeking services is shrinking.
But the actual number of addicts in Vermont not seeking treatment, but in need of it, Gobeille said, “may be” in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 people. He added that of the treatment currently being provided, “We may be at 6,800, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be to actually reverse this trend.”
Gobeille, in addition to his role as AHS secretary, serves as the the co-chair of the Governor’s Opioid Coordination Council. The council is made up of 21 members from different fields and perspectives from across the state, including Attorney General TJ Donovan and Rutland Mayor David Allaire. The goal is to implement drug prevention strategies in cities and towns around Vermont.
Gobeille’s talk came on the heels of news last week in Brattleboro of 12 drug overdoses in a little more than a day, including one fatality.
This week, Vermont State Police have been investigating two deaths that took place Wednesday in Londonderry. In one of those deaths, that of a 22-year-old man, evidence of drug use was located in the apartment where the body was found, according to police. In the other death, police said a 41-year-old woman collapsed in her home and could not be revived. It’s not known if those two deaths are connected, police said, adding they are awaiting results of toxicology tests and autopsies.
This week, Gobeille said, a high school principal and a member of the council he co-chairs called, alerting him of another person in Vermont dying of an opioid overdose.
“We get up every day trying to figure out how we can do this differently,” he said.
Gobeille, a Rhode Island native, served as the chair of the health care-regulating Green Mountain Care Board before his appointment to the post of human services secretary by Gov. Phil Scott.
In addition, he is a restaurant owner, and he told the crowd Thursday that “a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” he supervised an eatery in Rutland called Lums. Gobeille told the crowd personal stories of restaurant workers he assisted who were battling addiction and those he tried to help but who overdosed and died.
“This crisis is ubiquitous. It is everywhere,” he said. “It’s literally in our families, in our schools, in our churches. We need to all understand that.”
He said programs on the local level, such as Rutland’s Project Vision, serve as a model that other communities across Vermont are looking to replicate. He said while statewide initiatives are looking at the big picture, local programs are vital in seeing a more granular picture.
“You’ve got to deal with it house to house,” he said.
Later, as the meeting came to a close, a woman rose to speak, telling Gobeille and the crowd that the little girl so carefree as she ran past him earlier in the meeting had a rough start in life. The girl, the woman said, was born addicted to opiates and was placed in foster care. Since that time, the woman added, the girl has been adopted by a family and lives in the city’s Northwest Neighborhood, which has been hit hard by the drug epidemic.
“It’s really easy for us to see the Northwest Neighborhood as the heart of the opiate problem,” the woman said as she told the story of the little girl. “It’s also,” the woman said of the neighborhood, “the heart of the solution of the problem.”
Photo courtesy of the state of Vt.
Secretary Al Gobeille