Top White House Drug Official Visits Vermont

By Steph Machado

Published 03/03 2014 06:26PM

Updated 03/03 2014 08:24PM

WATERBURY, Vt. - The Obama Administration is proud of Vermont's efforts to battle opiate addiction. So much so, the White House's top drug policy official visited Monday.

Gil Kerlikowske met with Governor Shumlin and various members of his administration at the Public Safety office in Waterbury. Also in attendance was Skip Gates, who lost his son Will Gates to a heroin overdose five years ago. Will was a 21-year-old UVM student.

"I would give everything I own, including my life, to go back...and administer Narcan to Will in hopes that it would bring him back," Gates said. Narcan is the brand name of Naloxone, a drug that can save the life of someone in the midst of an opiate overdose. Vermont's Narcan pilot program is part of the reason Kerlikowske came to Vermont.

"I can't tell you enough how important the Naloxone program is for first responders," Kerlikowske said.

Narcan costs $15 per kit, and requires very little training.

"All this can be assembled in 15 seconds," said Dr. Harry Chen, the Commissioner for the Vermont Department of Health. His department is distributing the kits, and he demonstrated the quick assembly process in Waterbury Monday.

All ambulances in the state carry a kit, and soon so will every state trooper.

"I expect in about six weeks we'll have all troopers trained and carrying," said Colonel Tom L'Esperance, the Director of State Police. He says 10 troopers are currently carrying kits. The e-training takes just one hour. The biggest issue troopers are currently dealing with is weather; the kits can't sit in a cold cruiser. But troopers might carry the kits on their bullet-proof vests as an alternative.

"We've already saved seven lives in Vermont by making this drug more readily available," said Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-Vermont). And it's going to become even more readily available. The Health Department wants pharmacies to carry it on their shelves; Walgreens in Rhode Island already stocks it.

Kerlikowske's visit also included a tour of the HowardCenter methadone clinic in South Burlington. It is one of the treatment centers that has been given Narcan; it's already saved four lives. He hopes other states will follow Vermont's lead and start treating opiate addiction as a public health crisis, not just a crime.

"There are some places that have not ripped the cover off," Kerlikowske said. "And have not looked at this for the horrific problems it causes."

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont) was in town from Washington and joined the HowardCenter tour. We asked him what it means for the President to send Kerlikowske here.

"It has a lot of weight," Welch said. "What that indicates is the White House is impressed with what we're trying to do in Vermont." Welch added it might bode well for the state when requesting federal funding in the future.

140 Narcan kits have been distributed in the state, with plans to dole out hundreds more in the coming months. In addition to State Police, the Health Department plans to give the kits to all treatment centers.

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