- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

WATERBURY, Vt. (AP) - Vermont’s efforts to fight heroin and opiate abuse can serve as a model for the rest of the country, the nation’s top anti-drug official said Monday during a visit to the state Department of Public Safety.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, applauded the state’s efforts to combat the growing heroin problem through medical therapy and expanded use of overdose preventatives.

“In a state the size of Vermont you can serve as a model and a blueprint,” Kerlikowske said at the meeting attended by Gov. Peter Shumlin, top public safety officials and Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen.

“Vermont wants to lead the way in treating this as a disease,” said Shumlin, who in his State of the State address called opiate abuse a public health problem that cannot be solved by law enforcement alone.

As part of that effort, Chen said rules are being changed so all ambulances will have someone to administer the opiate overdose antidote naloxone - commonly known by the brand name Narcan. Previously, only higher level medical providers could administer naloxone but the new rule will allow emergency medical technicians to administer the drug.

It’s hoped that in about six weeks all state police troopers will be trained to use naloxone, the head of the Vermont State Police Col. Tom L’Esperance said.

To date, the state has dispensed about 500 naloxone kits to two clinics.

Shumlin estimates the kits have saved about 7 lives so far.

After the Waterbury meeting, Kerlikowske, Shumlin and others toured HowardCenter, a methadone clinic in South Burlington, and met with emergency room staff at the state’s largest hospital, Fletcher Allen Health Care.

“Having the White House focus on Vermont and what we’re trying to do, I think it’s going to make a difference,” Robert Bick, Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services at HowardCenter said.

He agreed that Vermont’s example was paving the way.

“I think if other states are willing to acknowledge that they have something to learn then I think they should be making a pilgrimage here,” Bick said.

HowardCenter will be receiving part of the $200,000 included in the mid-year budget adjustment bill for reducing treatment waiting lists.

Bick said it’s unacceptable for those wanting treatment to be told to they have to wait.

“My sense is that the commitment is there to give us what we need to be able to address this problem in the way that we should and do address any other legitimate medical problem,” Bick said.

But a new, powerful opiate is being rolled out soon. Zohydro, the first single-ingredient hydrocodone drug ever cleared for U.S. patients is on track to launch in March, according to drug company Zogenix Inc.

The pill is significantly more potent than currently available hydrocodone combination pills, such as Vicodin. Bick said any new opiate to hit the market has risk of abuse.

More than two dozen state prosecutors, including Vermont’s Attorney General William Sorrell, signed a letter in December asking the FDA to either reconsider the drug’s approval or set a timeline to reformulate it and set marketing and prescription restrictions.

The Department of Health and Human Services said the FDA decided the benefits of Zohydro outweigh the risks and that revised labeling and a box warning would support safe usage until an abuse-deterrent version could be produced.

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