After weeks of studying Vermont’s prescription drug problem, House lawmakers on Thursday advanced a sweeping bill that would address opiate addiction and abuse.
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the lead sponsor of the bill, said even before this legislative session began, he repeatedly heard from law enforcement officials who urged the Legislature to strengthen the state’s response to a prescription drug epidemic.
"We continue to have issues with overdoses," Lippert said. "We continue to have a need to address recovery because, as law enforcement said in our committee and elsewhere, we can not arrest our way out of this problem."
As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lippert made sure the issue got attention this year. On Thursday, he outlined on the House floor how the new legislation would address that problem. It would provide better access to the state’s prescription drug monitoring system, and hold property owners accountable if they knowingly rent to drug dealers. It would also attempt to undercut the financing of the drug trade, and increase treatment options.
Public health and law enforcement officials are championing the measure. They say it would save lives.
"It’s clear that we have a challenging problem with opiate addiction and substance abuse in Vermont," said Health Commissioner Harry Chen, whose office estimates that Vermont sees about 52 deaths every year by unintentional overdoses.
Chen said the state’s prescription drug monitoring system is only effective if physicians use it. "This bill is really going to enhance its effectiveness and efficiency and essentially require physicians to use it at a time when we all agree they should be looking to take better care of their patients."
Last year, a similar bill got bottled up in committee largely because lawmakers couldn’t agree whether to give police access to the state’s drug records. This version would limit police access, but some lawmakers, including Arlington Representative Cynthia Browning, want to expand it.
"I understand all the issues of privacy of patients," Browning explained. "I just think it’s important to note that improved access for law enforcement is not in this bill. That is one tool that is not being provided in this bill."
Since opiate addiction in Vermont has dramatically spiked in recent years, lawmakers agree that the state needs to take a more comprehensive approach and they say this bill is a good start.
The House also advanced a companion bill that would create limited criminal liability for a person who calls emergency officials when someone is potentially having an opiate overdose.