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Shumlin Dedicates "State of the State" Address to Opiate Problem

The Governor said right from the start: he was saving economy, education and healthcare talk for his budget address.
MONTPELIER - The Governor said right from the start: he was saving economy, education and healthcare talk for his budget address.

"In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addition plagues us," he said, addressing the House, Senate and a packed gallery Wednesday.

He was inspired by people like Dustin Machia, who says he became addicted to oxycontin in high school.

"As soon as I did it I said...if this is drug addiction, I don't want it," said Dustin.

Now five years clean, Dustin says he was able to get his life back after seeking treatment at a rehab center.

"The stories of these young Vermonters break your heart," said Gov. Shumlin.

Shumlin outlined his plan to fight the opiate problem by first calling on people to treat drug addicts differently.

"We often hear in the news about the criminal side of drug addiction," Shumlin said. "The robberies, the busts in our communities."

He wants people to see drug addiction not as a crime, but as a healthcare crisis.

"We must do for this disease what we do for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses," he said.

The director of the HowardCenter Bob Bick agrees: jail is not the answer.

"We are not going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem," Bick said.

Shumlin says not only does prison not fix the problem, it costs the state more money.

"A week in prison in Vermont costs $1,120," Shumlin said. "But $123 will buy a week of treatment for a heroin addict in a state funded center."

For that reason, Shumlin wants to give $200,000 to those rehab centers to bolster staff and get rid of long wait times.

"Right now there is a huge waiting list for opiate treatment," said the chair of the House Human Services committee Ann Pugh (D-Chittenden). "People willing and able and wanting to get treatment, can't," she said.

That's exactly what happened to Dustin Machia.

"They said 'well, our suicidal patients are at the top of the list, so you're going to have to wait'," he said, describing what happened when he first decided to go to rehab.

Governor Shumlin's plan will cost over $2 million to fight drug addiction. He says the funding will be discussed during his budget address next week.

Shumlin does want input about his plan; he says he is holding a statewide community forum at the statehouse later this legislative session.

Lawmakers had mixed reaction to the State of the State address; although stopping opiate addiction transcends party lines, not everyone agreed with the manner in which Governor Shumlin chose to do it.

"My question is...what is the "state of the state?"" said House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner (R-Chittenden). "We know what the issue with the opiate problem is, and we're pleased to see the governor focused on that. But what about the rest of the issues that we deal with? Furthermore, we're looking at a 70 million dollar budget gap, and no mention whatsoever...except for increasing spending."

Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) agreed with Shumlin's choice to focus his address on just this one topic.

"The Governor's speech today was probably one of the most important ones we've had in the state in many many years," Campbell said. "The problem that this state is facing...that should be on the utmost priority list of anybody."
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