JOHNSON — Harm reduction measures, prevention strategies and the importance of federal funding were among the policy responses to the opioid crisis pitched at a town hall-style conversation Thursday night featuring the leading Democratic candidates for Vermont’s open U.S. House seat: state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray.
Jenna’s Promise, a local nonprofit organization that provides resources and support to those in recovery, hosted the debate to ask the candidates about one sole topic: the opioid crisis that has affected staggering numbers of Vermonters.
According to the Vermont Department of Health, a record 210 Vermonters died of opioid overdoses in 2021. As of April, the latest month for which data is available, 61 people have died of overdoses this year. The department estimates 9,363 Vermonters are receiving treatment for substance use disorder as of July.
Jenna’s Promise was founded in 2019 by Greg and Dawn Tatro in memory of their daughter, Jenna, who died of an overdose in 2015. The couple founded the center to help those who face the challenges of substance use disorder.
The event was moderated by VTDigger reporter Kevin O’Connor and Melissa Story, a leader in the recovery community who has first-hand experience with substance use disorder. (According to the organizers, Dr. Louis Meyers, another candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. House, was not invited to participate.)
The two candidates appeared individually during separate segments, and the moderators asked only one question each. Audience members then asked the majority of the remaining questions, many of which varied from candidate to candidate.
O’Connor began each candidate’s session by telling them, “This is not a contest, this is a conversation.”
Both candidates touched on the need to increase federal and state funding for recovery and treatment centers.
Balint said she plans to push for Congress to allocate more direct grant money to states for these services.
“I'm somebody who is going to be standing up for big block grants to states to invest in those recovery centers, those programs that have a track record of success,” Balint said. “And those are mostly the ones that are like Jenna’s Promise — rooted in the community — because the community solutions are the ones that really work.”
Gray said she would advocate to increase base funding to the organizations, rather than to states. “Right now, the funding mechanism that exists really forces places like Jenna’s Promise to do a lot of outside fundraising and wonder what's gonna happen from year to year. So certainly the federal government could do a lot right now,” she said.
While both candidates addressed workforce shortages in the number of trained personnel at treatment centers, Gray specifically mentioned the Opioid Workforce Act that was introduced in Congress in 2021. Gray believes it is crucial to “increasing the number of residency programs, increasing the number of professionals we can get trained.”
The two candidates diverged, however, when discussing broader solutions. Balint’s comments focused more heavily on harm reduction, a policy framework focused on mitigating the most severe outcomes of substance use. Gray spoke more often about prevention, pitching strategies to keep drugs out of communities in the first place.
Balint referred to her work this year in the state Senate to pass a bill — which Gov. Phil Scott ultimately vetoed — to study overdose prevention sites and other harm reduction strategies. She said she would push for more such policies to pass through Congress.
“Are we going to give lip service to harm reduction or are we going to get serious?” she asked. “And if we're going to get serious, then we have to use the things that are working, whether it is needle exchange, whether it's low-barrier entry to support services.”
Gray referred multiple times to prevention, saying she wants to “build better policy to make a system that actually, truly invests in prevention.”
Gray specifically highlighted increased mental health support as one measure that would deter people from turning to drugs. She also discussed allocating more funds to the Department of Children and Families to prevent the separation of children and parents in situations involving substance use.
While both candidates spoke of the transportation obstacles that can deter access to treatment, Balint also discussed changing the federal guidelines for who can dispense buprenorphine and methadone, both drugs used for the treatment of opioid addiction.
“We need to really look and see if those are working for rural communities,” Balint said, referring to the current federal guidelines. “And I think generally we would say they are not, and many people cannot get to those sites. And it's holding all of us back.”
Gray, too, pushed for increased transportation in rural areas so people can more readily access treatment sites. “We need to double our efforts and make sure that transportation is not the barrier to access to support,” she said.
When asked what she would do to change the laws for those involved with dealing drugs, Balint pushed for a restorative justice model. She said she believed in having those individuals take responsibility, but also allowing them to get the help they need.
“It is holding people accountable within the criminal justice system,” she said. “And it's also making sure that if it's appropriate for people to be handed off outside the criminal justice system, that there's actually support there to follow that person through for their own recovery. And restorative justice, making sure they are making amends.”
Gray, meanwhile, highlighted the importance of representation from the recovery community in making policy.
“I'd like to commit here tonight that, if I'm elected, to have someone in the office that is in recovery,” Gray said. “And to make sure that they're the lead on thinking about federal resources, and so that when someone calls from the state who needs help, that we are able to navigate that.”
Also in attendance was state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, a former candidate in the U.S. House race who dropped out in late May and endorsed Balint. Several local legislators were also present.
In her opening remarks, Ram Hinsdale said that whoever wins the U.S. House seat “is going to take Jenna's name and story with them to Washington.”
Gregory Tatro, co-founder of Jenna’s Promise and Jenna’s brother, told the crowd that events like these keep the conversation moving on this issue.
“There is energy at the grassroots for real change,” Tatro said. “The ripple of Jenna's legacy started small and then builds into a wave of determination. At a time of hope, as we have joined other forces in this community here tonight, I see a tsunami of potential.”
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