02.28.19

Statement Of Appropriations Vice Chair Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) At The Appropriations Committee Hearing On The Opioid Epidemic

Thank you Chairman Blunt and Ranking Member Murray for convening today’s hearing to learn more about how states are working to combat opioid addiction.  The opioid epidemic is the health crisis of our time.  Every community and every family has been touched in some way by this tragic loss of life or the struggle of addiction.  An epidemic of this scale must be met with bold new ideas and the resources to back them up.

Vermont, like other states, is not immune to the scourge of opioid addiction.  In 2008, as drug related crime rates climbed in Vermont, I held a Judiciary Committee field hearing in Rutland, Vermont, to hear ideas from local law enforcement and community leaders on how to reduce drug-related crimes.  In that hearing we learned what we have heard many times since, but it bears repeating:  We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.  That message was echoed in follow-up field hearings I held in Vermont in the communities of St. Albans, Barre, and again in Rutland, in 2014.  Prevention, education, treatment, and recovery must go hand-in-hand with the important efforts of law enforcement.  I am pleased today’s hearing will focus on how states are working to treat opioid addiction as a public health crisis. 

While certainly not spared from the opioid epidemic, Vermont is ahead of much of the country in many ways:  Our state openly identified the problem, and our former governor, Peter Shumlin, dedicated his entire State of the State address in 2014 to constructively seek ways to not just help addicts get clean, but to halt this scourge in its tracks.  Public health leaders, addiction specialists, doctors, and state leaders came together and implemented a system to integrate substance abuse treatment with primary health care.  The plan, known as the Hub and Spoke Model, helps support those in recovery with nine regional hubs, offering daily medication assisted treatment for those with complex addictions, and spokes, where patients receive follow-up care, counseling and general wellness services.  This framework has allowed Vermont to virtually eliminate wait times for treatment, which can be enormous barriers for individuals needing help.

I am pleased to have Beth Tanzman, Executive Director of Vermont’s Blueprint for Health, here with us today. The Blueprint for Health helped design and implement the Hub and Spoke Model in Vermont, and I look forward to hearing from Ms. Tanzman about how effective the model has been in practice, and how other states might build upon the success Vermont has forged.      

It is no coincidence that Vermont has a higher number of residents in treatment programs, per capita, than any other state, and that those seeking treatment in the hub and spoke system have lower rates of incarceration, hospitalizations, and emergency department use.  It is through years of work to reduce the stigma surrounding treatment, educating health care providers, federal investments in Medicaid, and developing a treatment and recovery infrastructure that works for rural communities across the state. 

I have worked closely with Chairman Shelby, Chairman Blunt and Ranking Member Murray over the past two years to ensure that the Appropriations Committee invested billions of dollars in new funding to help states combat addiction.  It is through these investments that Vermont is able to offer a number of treatment and recovery programs including low-barrier treatment, which allows Vermonters at certain emergency departments and recovery centers to receive same day medication assisted treatment.

States are often the incubators of innovation.  When we see what is working in the states, we can adopt that approach for the federal system.  I look forward to hearing from our other witnesses about their innovative approaches to combatting opioid addiction.  But as I am sure all of our witnesses know too well, even one overdose death is still too many.  We are seeing new challenges, such as a surge in overdoses and deaths related to fentanyl, which can be 50 times more powerful than heroin.  Our work is not complete, and as Vice Chairman of this Committee, I am committed to continuing to work with Chairman Shelby to ensure we continue to invest the resources needed to combat this crisis. 

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