Burlington chief on opioid crisis: Abstinence is “abysmal failure”

Local News

The woman whose heartfelt obituary for a sibling went viral in October helped lead a panel discussion at a town hall on the opioid crisis Wednesday in Burlington.

Kate O’Neill, who wrote the widely shared obituary for her sister, Madeline Ellen Linsenmeir, said she hopes the gathering, hosted by the Burlington Free Press, helps bring awareness to the addiction crisis.

“It’s an epidemic, you feel really alone when you’re going through it,” O’Neill said. “There are millions of people suffering in the way that Maddie suffered… I do think that attention needs to be well beyond that obituary.”

The panel also included Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, whose immediate response to the obituary reflected the frustrations of people on the front lines of the  epidemic.

“I have a problem with this obituary,” del Pozo wrote in a Facebook post. “Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear, when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?”

Del Pozo is a strong advocate for medication-assisted treatment. Buprenorphine, a drug that treats opioid addiction, is widely available in Vermont. It’s at the heart of the state’s “hub & spoke” model, which health officials say has eliminated wait times for treatment. 

The medication has its critics, who say it replaces one addictive drug with another. But del Pozo said they should consider the alternative.

“That’s called abstinence, and it fails 90 to 98 percent of the time depending on the study,” Del Pozo said. “It’s an abysmal failure and it’s almost negligent.”

Another panelist, Liza Ryan, is a Champlain College student in recovery. She’s also a recovery coach with the Turning Point Center. 

“Any time I can share some experience, strength and hope to either family members or those suffering with addiction, I’m here and ready to do that,” Ryan said. “It was people who spoke out about their addictions that ultimately caught my attention to get some help.”

del Pozo said Vermont’s hub & spoke treatment model, which is being replicated in several states, including California and New Hampshire, has been a success, although the state has a ways to go.

“That suite of interventions exists really here and one or two other places in the country right now,” Del Pozo said. “Working in that environment with an openness to science and evidence gives me hope.”




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