Wrestling with the opioid epidemic in 2018

Posted December 28th, 2018.

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By Christie Wisniewski , Bennington Banner

BENNINGTON— While the opioid epidemic is still a harsh reality for Bennington, community leaders have rallied together throughout 2018 to propose new initiatives to help those struggling with addiction and to help the town heal from the epidemic’s effects.

Toward the end of the year, an opioid response plan, local recovery housing, and a class-action lawsuit against pharmaceutical opiate companies were all topics discussed at Select Board meetings.

As of mid-December 2018, the Bennington Police Department responded to 41 overdoses throughout the year, said Lt. Cam Grande. Four of those calls were for fatal overdoses.

According to the most recent Bennington County data provided by the Vermont Department of Health, there were two prescription opioid-related deaths, three heroin-related deaths, and three Fentanyl-related deaths in the county this year. There is not yet any data for the months of October, November, or December 2018.

FedUp talk

In mid-November, members of FedUp Vermont, a grassroots organization comprised of those affected by the epidemic who are seeking ways to end the problem, addressed the Select Board in what Select Board Chair Thomas Jacobs called one of “the most thoughtful, motivational talks” to take place at a board meeting.

Testimonies from three members told the stories of family members who were prescribed opiates for legitimate medical issues, but over-prescription led to a dark path of addiction that some did not survive. Members hoped that these stories would help the community understand the severity of the situation and see those with addiction as humans and not hopeless addicts.

During the talk, Turning Point Center Executive Director Kenneth Sigsbury highlighted the dire need of local recovery housing.

“What we need here in Bennington…is recovery housing,” Sigsbury told the board. “Being able to take the people from treatment and put them into recovery housing — and I mean recovery housing done right…. It’s the only way that we’re going to decrease the recidivism so we can get people into treatment right away.”

Class action lawsuit

In late November, Bennington joined other Vermont communities in an effort to be compensated for the effects of the opioid epidemic from companies who manufacture prescription opioids like OxyContin.

The Select Board approved a proposal for the town to work with Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, a national public interest litigation firm recruiting Vermont communities to sue opiate medication manufacturers over the local costs associated with the epidemic. Sanford Heisler Sharp says it will gather data to determine the cost of the drug crisis to Bennington, and if the costs are significant enough, the law firm will file a lawsuit in state court.

The firm is pressing the suit on a contingency basis and said it would accept 25 percent of any damage award recovered, with 75 percent going to the community. There is no upfront cost to the town.

Opioid Response Plan

In an effort to combat the opioid epidemic, a local leadership team has drafted an opioid response plan for Bennington with short-, medium- and long-term goals including the goal to eventually form a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization to “serve as the organizing entity” in fighting the problem.

Seven members from the 17-person leadership team addressed the Select Board on Dec. 10, outlining the team’s plan and gaining the support of the board to continue its efforts, which includes hiring a health service coordinator and adopting an online resource center managed by United Counseling Services within six months of activating the plan.

Additionally, officials hope to build a recovery housing campus and community center over three years. Organizers are in discussion with grant writers at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch for funding.

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