ST. ALBANS – A collection of social and health groups based in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties met as the Franklin Grand Isle Opioid Consortium for the first time Monday afternoon, taking their first organizational steps toward drafting a plan that, when complete, should bridge gaps in the region’s response to the opioid epidemic.

The consortium, a coalition organized under the leadership of the Franklin Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center, was recently awarded a federal grant of $200,000 to fund the planning effort. Those funds are to be shared with a similar coalition based out of the Northeast Kingdom.

That grant was awarded after a lengthy report filed by the consortium members highlighting some of the challenges in the opioid crisis unique to the region, namely those related to more isolated rural communities dispersed throughout the northern half of the state.

While the organization would return to those challenges later Monday afternoon, much of their first meeting was spent as more of an introduction, with representatives from different organizations focused more on building a working relationship before taking on what, according to the consortium’s timeline, would be at least a year-long planning process.

Beyond Nina Curtiss, the executive director at the Restorative Justice Center and the leader of the consortium’s activities, Monday’s meeting was joined by several representatives from the Northwestern Medical Center (NMC) and the state’s Department of Health.

Other organizations present included Franklin County Caring Communities and Franklin Grand Isle Community Action, represented by FCCC’s executive director Beth Crane and Community Action’s director Robert Ostermeyer, respectively.

The St. Albans Police Department is also a participant in the consortium, with SAPD Lt. Jason Weatherby attending Monday’s meeting.

“I feel like we often try to encourage people, especially our most vulnerable, to be strong and unite and be healthy,” said NMC’s Melinda White. “Sometimes it saddens me to see that the people teaching it aren’t doing it… so for me, this is an amazing blessing to have an opportunity to work together.”

White is a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) coordinator with NMC’s comprehensive pain clinic, dubbed St. Albans’s “super spoke” in the regional “hub and spoke” system.

The “hub and spoke” is the statewide model for treating opioid addiction, where local healthcare providers, or “spokes,” are organized around a central treatment center, or “hub.” The model serves as the state’s primary infrastructure for treating opioid addiction.

The consortium represents one of the larger regional coalitions tailored to the opioid epidemic, something that more optimistic members pointed to as discussion rolled into more some of the more logistical work required for planning.

“This presents a real opportunity to have a broader than we’ve had in the past to forward this important work,” said NMC Director of Development Jeff Moreau.

“There’s real commitment in this group not only to have an authentic process but to include many voices,” agreed Curtiss.

Read more about this new coverage plan in Wednesday’s Messenger or subscribe to our digital edition.