Reps. Small & Colburn: Governor Scott fails in Vermont on overdose prevention
This commentary is written by State Representatives Taylor Small, P-Winooski and Selene Colburn, P-Burlington.
The 210 Vermonters who died from opioid overdoses in 2021 set a record for our state.
The ongoing overdose crisis, Covid-19, and an influx of federal funding have created opportunities for the expansion of culturally relevant, high-quality harm reduction services — but the Scott administration is letting that moment pass without action.
This year, the Vermont Legislature made significant investments in evidence-based approaches designed to save lives, such as needle service programs and pilot programs, including a mobile methadone clinic, support services increased training for Vermonters involved in the justice system and expanded treatment training for emergency responders. .
We’ve reinvested prevention funds to focus on preventing deaths, because when your house is on fire, you’re not saving water for the future; you extinguished the fire. You are saving people’s lives now.
A significant obstacle to these much-needed investments seemed to be the Vermont Department of Health. We listened to our providers in the field on the actions to be taken at the legislative level and the solutions were clear: reduce barriers to drug treatment and set up an overdose prevention site.
After working with the Department of Health and reaching what appeared to be an agreement in the House, department officials later revoked their support in the Senate. They asked for funds to return to substance use prevention, reducing the funding needed for our needle service programs.
They criticized the pilot programs presented by the Chamber, calling them duplicates, and said they would have “very little impact on overdose rates” in Vermont. They opposed the expansion of syringe service programs and the reduction of prior authorization insurance requirements that providers said prevented effective access to treatment.
When asked what the state could do best to address the growing overdose death crisis, the department’s response was that we are already doing enough. If that’s all we can do as a state, then we have a dark future ahead of us.
The Legislature eventually passed H.728, a bill that would have expanded the scope of needle service programs, studied the possibility of an overdose prevention site in Vermont, and examined barriers to treatment access in Medicaid insurance practices. Governor Scott vetoed the bill, saying he opposed the Legislature even considering an overdose prevention site.
These sites, operating around the world and now in New York City, have saved countless lives and provide a safe place for people who use drugs to seek support, help and vital access to overdose reversals. In contrast, many Vermonters who died of drug overdoses were alone and isolated at the time.
The Legislature also passed H.505, a bill that brought together a panel of medical experts to advise us on how to approach personal drug use and possession from a public health perspective. Governor Scott vetoed it, opting instead to maintain failed “war on drugs” rhetoric that promotes stigma and prevents Vermonters from seeking help.
Similarly, the governor vetoed H.534, a bill that would have given a second chance to Vermonters with long nonviolent drug or property crime histories. after serving their sentence.
Put it all together and it paints a clear and deeply troubling picture of the approach of the Vermont Department of Health and the Scott administration to this crisis: an approach that lacks curiosity, does not follow science, leans heavily on the clearly failed strategy of criminalization, and tells us again and again that all is well, while our friends, loved ones, and fellow Vermonters pay the price with their lives.
The situation in which we now find ourselves is more serious than ever. Coming out of a period of isolation and plummeting mental health while continuing to deal with the changing reality of Covid, many people are increasing their substance use, putting them at increased risk of overdose.
As the leading cause of injury death in the United States, drug overdose does not just harm the individual; it also harms their families and our community as a whole. Federal and state funding for treatment, rather than punishment, for our fellow Vermonters is needed to repair and rejuvenate our communities across the state and nation.
The past two years have been painful in many ways, but they have opened the eyes of many to the long-standing inequalities and injustices within our systems. Patient-centered and culturally effective harm reduction organizations must be financially viable and fully funded within our system of care to ultimately lead our state toward better outcomes for people who use drugs and help them not only to survive, but to thrive. And we must adopt strategies that we know reduce harm and save lives.
Let’s say it again: all is not well. We need the Scott administration to take the overdose death crisis seriously and act now with informed compassion.