Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On Final Passage of S. 524, The Comprehensive Addiction And Recovery Act Of 2016

Eight years ago, I convened the first in a series of hearings in Vermont where the Senate Judiciary Committee examined the growing problem of drug addiction in rural communities.  As we gathered in Rutland in March 2008, the mayor noted in his opening statement that there was a part of him that wished that the Committee did not have to be there in his city that day.  He wished that his community was not facing the scourge of drug abuse and addiction that was creeping across rural America. 

But in true Vermont fashion, Mayor Louras and the other community leaders, law enforcement officials, and health professionals who gathered with us that day in March 2008 did not shy away from the problem.  Instead, we had an honest discussion about how to fight this problem together, and about how the Federal government could help.  Over the past eight years, we have continued this important conversation at other hearings I convened in St. Albans, in Barre, and again in Rutland.  We have heard testimony from community leaders and officials throughout Vermont about the growing problem of opioid addiction.  In St. Albans, for example, Dr. Fred Holmes told us tragic stories about teenagers getting hooked on OxyContin and other opioids, and then committing crimes to support their habits.  These stories have been heartbreaking.

Despite these difficult circumstances, I am struck by the determination of Vermonters to come together to address this crisis – and to do so not just through law enforcement and locking people up, but through comprehensive prevention, treatment, and recovery programs. 

In Rutland, for example, Project VISION brings together city officials, law enforcement, and social services to work together, all in the same office, to confront the problems of drug abuse and related crime.  What they have found is that something as simple as sharing office space improves communication and coordination, and begins to turn the tide.

Mary Alice McKenzie, Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club, testified at the most recent hearing in Rutland about children who are neglected because their parents are opioid addicts, and how there is sometimes no money for food because parents have spent it on drugs.  Kids are also becoming addicts at younger and younger ages.  The Boys & Girls Club has responded by extending evening hours and staying open on Saturdays.  They now serve dinner six nights a week and drive kids home after dark.  They provide safety for these children.  They are also working with schools and public health officials to provide education and prevent them from getting swept up in that world.

At that same hearing, Vermont’s Health Department Commissioner, Harry Chen, described to us Vermont’s innovative and successful “hub and spoke” treatment model.  This system has two levels of care, with the patients’ needs determining the appropriate level.  Although challenges remain and waiting lists are still too long, I believe this system can be a model for the Nation’s response to the opioid crisis.

Earlier this year, we heard powerful testimony from Governor Shumlin about the progress that Vermont has made because of this comprehensive approach – but also about the work that still remains to be done.  Vermont’s focused and persistent efforts are now drawing attention and replication in communities across the Nation.

In many ways, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, builds upon the work in Vermont. 

To specifically address the opioid problem in Vermont and other rural areas, I made sure that CARA will help get the overdose-reversal drug naloxone into more of our rural communities.  Getting naloxone into more hands will save lives.  I also ensured that CARA includes a new Federal grant program to fund expanded treatment options for heroin and opioid abuse and Federal funding to expand state-led anti-heroin task forces.

I am proud to be a co-sponsor of CARA, and I am glad to see the Senate pass this bill.  This bill is historic because it marks the first time that we are treating addiction like the public health crisis that it is.  We are not imposing harsh and arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences on those who abuse drugs.  We are not condemning the poor and sick among us to be warehoused in our nation’s jails.  Today I am hopeful that we have finally learned our lesson from the failed war on drugs.

But our work is not done.  The Senate missed an opportunity to provide real funding for this effort when Republicans blocked Senator Shaheen’s amendment that would have provided for emergency supplemental appropriations.  So we need to keep fighting to ensure that we provide the necessary resources to support implementation of this bill.  In Vermont and across this country, there are few issues more pressing than opioid and heroin addiction, and I will not stop working with people throughout our state to help fight this epidemic. 

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