By Governor Peter Shumlin
A young woman suffering from an opiate overdose was recently brought to the Howard Center, an addiction recovery center in Chittenden County. The young woman had blue lips, was unresponsive, and was not breathing. Luckily, an opiate overdose reversal drug called naloxone was on hand. After receiving three doses of the drug, the young woman started breathing again and the overdose was reversed. She is now in treatment and recovery. The presence of naloxone meant the difference between life and death for this young woman, and it put her on a path toward recovery. As this incident shows, naloxone is an incredible tool in our battle against opiate addiction in Vermont.
As part of our efforts to address the opiate addiction challenges facing Vermont and the rest of the country, we have expanded the availability of naloxone, equipping every Vermont state trooper with the drug and distributing it to first responders and addiction recovery centers around the state. Those efforts are paying off. Almost 1900 naloxone kits have been dispensed and about 190 have been used to reverse an overdose.
As naloxone is distributed more widely, the price is increasing. A New York Times report published late last year found that prices for the drug are spiking by up to 50 percent nationwide. In Vermont, the cost of the drug has spiked by 62 percent in the last 30 days. The increase in price comes at a time when we are trying to further expand the availability of this drug by allowing individuals to purchase it from a pharmacy. And it comes at a time when a new report by the Centers for Disease Control shows that the number of heroin-related deaths in America has tripled since 2010. We can’t stand idly by as the price of this life-saving drug skyrockets.
This week, I joined with the co-chairs of my Criminal Justice and Substance Abuse Cabinet, Chittenden County States Attorney T. J. Donovan and Rutland Regional Medical Center CEO Tom Huebner, to urge the company that makes naloxone, Amphastar, to stop the price spike seen in Vermont and around the country.
With deaths from opiate addiction rising nationwide, now is not the time for the capitalistic instincts of a pharmaceutical company to drive the cost of this drug through the roof. Amphastar made $200 million last year. Trying to boost those profits at the expense of people suffering from the disease of addiction is just wrong.
Naloxone is an important tool that we are using to treat opiate addiction. But it is not the only tool we are deploying. We’re significantly expanding drug treatment programs so more Vermonters have help beating addiction. Since last year, we’ve nearly doubled number of people in treatment. At the Howard Center alone, we’ve decreased the number of those waiting for treatment by 55 percent.
At the same time we’re expanding treatment, we’re working to prevent opiate addiction in the first place. The Department of Health has screened almost 13,000 Vermonters using an evidence-based protocol to identify those with substance use disorders or at risk of developing a disorder, to get them access to early intervention and treatment services.
We’re also making progress implementing Act 195, the state’s comprehensive pre-trial services law designed to bypass the court process for those people addicted to drugs and who can be safely treated in a community setting. Statewide, we are hiring pre-trial monitors who will help those convicted of non-violent crimes who are willing to get into recovery. If individuals are deemed a danger to the community, they will still go to jail. But for those non-violent offenders suffering from addiction, we’ll give them the option to avoid jail if they commit to turning their lives around.
In Vermont we have changed the conversation around opiate addiction. No longer is it a problem that families around the state are expected to deal with quietly and alone. As a state, we are bringing the issue of addiction out of the shadows, providing help, and working together to solve an incredibly challenging problem that is affecting the entire nation. We have a lot of work to do, but we are on the right track.