Vermont Tackles Shortage of Addiction Treatment Specialists


Courtesy of VTDIGGER

State Senator Claire Ayer (VT-D)


MIDDLEBURY — On Monday, Oct. 16, Gov. Phil Scott and Secretary of State Jim Condos announced that reforms to Vermont’s regulations concerning licensing of substance-abuse counselors had been approved. The governor signed an executive order creating the Opioid Coordination Council on his first day in office in order to “help establish a more cohesive and streamlined approach to [combatting the] opioid epidemic.”

The council has worked for the past five months to modernize and consolidate 31 pages of regulations into 10 pages without minimizing the quality of professionals in the addiction treatment and recovery field. These changes were made in order to address what Gov. Scott called Vermont’s “substance use disorder workforce crisis.” Licensed treatment specialists represent “a critical need as we work to improve and help those suffering from addiction move to and stay in recovery,” he said.

State Senator Claire Ayer (VT-D), who is a registered nurse and holds a degree in environmental studies from Middlebury College, has chaired the Vermont Senate’s Committee on Health and Welfare since 2011. “The opioid crisis is affecting Addison County the way it is affecting the rest of the nation,” Ayer said. “But we have a shortage of counselors and treatment specialists to respond to the epidemic.”

Ayer cited two main reasons for this shortage of counselors. First, substance abuse counseling is a challenging and often underpaid field. Additionally, the 31 pages of regulations that determined who could become a counselor included many arbitrary and unreasonable specifications. For example, Ayer said, aspiring counselors would come to Vermont without understanding how difficult it is to become a counselor here. These people would often be denied because they did an internship or took a class with the wrong name, even if the subject met the criteria. According to health officials, reports Peter Hirschfield of Vermont Public Radio, an addition of at least 100 counselors is necessary for the state to fight the opioid disaster effectively.

In light of this, officials are focusing on increasing interest in this job field with initiatives like a loan repayment program for those who come to live and work in Vermont and on increasing resources for primary care. The Health and Welfare Committee also requested that the Vermont Office of Public Regulation take action to ease licensing requisites for substance-abuse counselors and mental health professionals in general.

“We are trying to make licensing more sensible,” said Ayer.

According to news organization VTDigger, the regulation reforms were passed under emergency rulemaking, meaning that they will stay in place for no longer than 120 days as lawmakers evaluate them for permanence.

Addiction treatment specialists provide social support and many other services that people who struggle with drug addiction often need. “[Treatment] is not as simple as getting a shot and immediately recovering from an addiction,” explained Ayer. “There are often more complicated mental health issues involved.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, the opioid crisis has killed over half a million people from 2000 to 2015. These changes in Vermont law come at a time when federal funding is uncertain. Ayer noted that if President Trump succeeds in reforming the Affordable Care Act, access to substance abuse counseling and treatment could be cut for many Americans, including Vermonters.

Last Thursday, Oct. 26, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency rather than a national disaster. Ayer says the main difference between the two classifications is the money and resources that accompany each. If Trump had declared a national disaster, there would be more immediate action and funding to combat the crisis.
Gov. Scott emphasized that the updates to regulations implemented on October 16th “reflect the sense of urgency we feel in addressing opioid addiction in Vermont.”