Vermont House legislators overwhelmingly passed an overdose prevention bill earlier this month. It was in response to new health department data showing an alarming 38% increase in overdose deaths across Vermont. Now the Senate should do the same.
But will they?
While three Vermonters are dying of overdose every week and many thousands more are at immediate risk, there are troubling signs that this life and death bill may not pass this year based on scheduling issues and tit for tat political infighting.
Although more Vermonters died of overdose than COVID-19 in 2020, there has been no commitment from Senate leadership to act.
Preventable overdose deaths are happening in hundreds of Vermont families and in every Vermont community. Suffering Vermont families cannot wait and will not accept or excuse delay. This is a public health emergency and requires emergency action from our leaders.
It is time to pass the overdose prevention bill (H.225), even if it requires extending the legislative session this year as was done to address COVID-19 deaths last year.
One House legislator, Representative Marybeth Redmond, said she cast her yes vote in honor of 13 women who had passed away since November.
Representative Carolyn Partridge spoke through tears as she explained she was casting her yes vote in honor of her niece who died of a fentanyl overdose.
“If you have not experienced the loss of a loved one to substance use disorder, you are fortunate,” she said. “It breaks hearts and tears families apart.”
Vermont families are being torn apart by preventable overdose deaths with sickening regularity. But many Vermonters may have the impression that the opioid crisis has abated, given the recent relative silence on the crisis from politicians, health officials and the media.
In 2013, then Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire state of the state address to the opioid crisis. That year, 69 Vermonters lost their lives to overdose.
In 2017, Governor Phil Scott formed his Opioid Coordination Council to address the opioid crisis. That year, 108 Vermonters lost their lives to overdose.
In 2019, Seven Days newspaper published an award-winning, year-long series of in-depth articles about the opioid crisis, including at least five cover stories. That year, 114 Vermonters lost their lives to overdose.
In 2020, 157 Vermonters lost their lives to overdose and 136 to COVID-19.
Governor Scott has appropriately held twice weekly press conferences on the COVID-19 pandemic. But he has done very little in recent months to highlight the opioid public health crisis.
Governor Scott’s Opioid Coordination Council has been disbanded. It has become difficult to interest reporters in stories about the opioid crisis. And legislators have passed no significant legislation to prevent overdose deaths in recent years. In fact, a similar overdose prevention bill was sidelined last year when the COVID-19 crisis hit.
A successful effort to address the opioid crisis requires sustained attention and constant innovation. Even in the face of “opioid crisis fatigue” and the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need our Senate leaders to recommit to taking timely action to prevent overdose deaths in Vermont.
Every life is precious. Many of those who are losing their lives to overdose are young mothers and fathers. The effects of their loss on their children will echo down generations perpetuating cycles of trauma.
Passing H.225 is the single most important step Vermont Senators can take to save lives now.
The Vermont Senate should act now, without delay.
Tom Dalton of Essex Junction is the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. He is an attorney and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.