By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger
RUTLAND — Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson said in the ongoing effort to combat illegal opiate use in Vermont, curbing the abuse of prescription drugs plays a leading role.
“We are awash in prescription opioids in this country,” he said.
Anderson spoke Thursday, Sept. 14, at a regular meeting in Rutland 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.
An overwhelming percentage of opiate addicts, Anderson said, start with pills.
“We are not going to get our arms around this problem until we bend the curve on the number of prescription opioids being issued around the country and around the state,” Anderson said. “It will be a very difficult battle to win if we don’t change that.”
He said he wasn’t blaming doctors or health care providers, calling them “partners” in the effort to reduce opiate abuse.
Education and recent changes in rules regarding the prescribing of opioids should have an impact, Anderson said.
“It’s about demand reduction,” he added. “Yes, we need to treat everybody that’s afflicted with this disease, but we have to stop people from getting afflicted to begin with.”
Last year, Anderson said, Vermont had 106 opiate overdose deaths, and the state is on pace for about the same number this year.
He talked about work the state has done in expanding availability of treatment and eliminating the wait list for people seeking treatment in Vermont, highlighting the opening earlier this year of an emergency treatment hub in St. Albans.
Anderson became public safety commissioner in January, appointed to the post by Gov. Phil Scott.
He is a former U.S. attorney for Vermont, the top federal prosecutor in the state. He has served as an assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the narcotics unit in the U.S. attorney’s office. He began his legal career as deputy state’s attorney in Orleans County.
In addition to the his role as commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, Anderson serves as co-chair of the Governor’s Opioid Coordination Council.
Fellow co-chair of the council, Al Gobeille, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, addressed the Project Vision group in Rutland earlier this summer, hitting on many on the same points as Anderson.
“This crisis is ubiquitous. It is everywhere,” Gobeille said. “It’s literally in our families, in our schools, in our churches. We need to all understand that.”
The council is made up of 21 members from different fields and perspectives from across the state, including Rutland Mayor David Allaire. The goal is to implement drug prevention strategies in cities and towns around Vermont.
“One of the things we’re trying to do in the Opiate Coordination Council is look to see if we can replicate what’s going with Project Vision in other parts of the state,” Anderson said Wednesday.
He added that the council plans to make recommendations to the governor in October on how to deal with the opiate crisis in the state.
“This is a statewide problem and needs a statewide solution,” he said. “It’s going to require the investment of every single Vermonter to remedy this problem, in my view.” Anderson added, “There’s nothing that has a higher priority for the governor.”
Also at the meeting Thursday, Project Vision members recognized the work of outgoing Rutland Recreation and Parks Department Superintendent Cindi Wight. She was recently hired as director of the Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront Department.
Rutland Police Commander Matthew Prouty was also introduced as the new executive director of Project Vision. He replaces Rutland Police Commander Scott Tucker, who recently retired from the department. Tucker was also recently named the new town manager in Wilmington.