Addiction Patients Overwhelm Vermont's Expanded Treatment Programs : Shots - Health News Last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address to Vermont's opiate addiction problem. Since then it has expanded treatment, but doctors say demand is outpacing services.

Addiction Patients Overwhelm Vermont's Expanded Treatment Programs

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Let's find out what Vermont has done with a year to battle opiates. About a year ago, Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire state of the state address to Vermont's opiate addiction problem. More people were seeking drug addiction treatment than getting help for alcoholism.


GOVERNOR PETER SHUMLIN: Right now, we have hundreds of Vermonters who are addicted and ready to accept help, who are condemned to waiting because we don't have the capacity to treat the demand.

INSKEEP: That was January, 2014. Steve Zind of Vermont Public Radio has the picture in January, 2015.

STEVE ZIND, BYLINE: Shumlin's speech got everyone's attention, including lawmakers. The state's budget for addiction treatment was more than doubled, and the whole system shifted into high gear.

DANA POVERMAN: This has not been an easy year for anybody running any of these programs. It's been strenuous.

ZIND: Dana Poverman is with the Howard Center in Burlington, which provides addiction treatment. In a kind of build-it-and-they-will-come way, the upward trajectory in the number of people seeking treatment got even steeper as more help became available. So at Poverman's center, despite more openings, there are still nearly 300 people waiting.

POVERMAN: There's a lot to congratulate ourselves as a state about. But sadly, it's just still not enough.

ZIND: The state's approach to addiction treatment is called a hub-and-spoke system. Poverman's center is one of five regional hubs providing intensive treatment, including the maintenance drug methadone. Once patients leave the hubs, they're treated by doctors and therapists in local communities. They're the spokes in the system.

Even though waiting lists persist, there's been a significant increase in the number of treatment openings at the hubs. But the state has had limited success getting doctors to agree to provide addiction treatment. Barbara Cimaglio of the Vermont Department of Health says it's not a matter of taking on more patients.

BARBARA CIMAGLIO: What we're asking is that all primary care physicians think about, are these patients possibly in my practice, and can I see them like I would anyone else?

ZIND: Despite paying for nurses and counselors to work with doctors who offer addiction treatment, the state has had a hard time making its case. Only about 1 in 5 primary care physicians treat opiate addiction, which involves prescribing a maintenance drug called buprenorphine. Some doctors are worried about the added work and the complex needs of addicted patients. Will Porter says in years past, that was his concern.

WILL PORTER: When I was engaged in family practice, it was hard to imagine doing it in addition to everything else. It was overwhelming.

ZIND: Porter is now just 1 of 3 doctors providing treatment in one Vermont county. David Pattison has been treating addiction for eight years. He says many doctors have been burned by patients who faked needing drugs for pain. They're leery when the same patients come back for addiction treatment.

DAVID PATTISON: It really feels bad to get tricked like that. They don't want to have anything to do with those people who have been violating their trust.

ZIND: Pattison says there are setbacks and relapses. But once a drug user has sought help, the relationship with a doctor changes.

PATTISON: My buprenorphine days in clinic are my best days. It's fun to see these people who are getting better and thankful to us.

ZIND: Doctors say there's also a shortage of counselors to treat patients with addiction. Vermont's hub-and-spoke system is barely two years old, and it's too early to judge its long-term effectiveness. But Pattison says the system is good. The problem is its capacity to meet the increasing demand for treatment. For NPR News, I'm Steve Zind.

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