By Christine Vestal
BURLINGTON, Vermont — After more than a decade of getting high on illicit opioid painkillers and heroin every day, Christopher Dezotelle decided to quit. He saw too many people overdose and die. “I couldn’t do that to my mom or my children,” he said.
He also got tired of having to commit crimes to pay for his habit — or at least the consequences of those crimes. At 33, he has spent more than 11 of his last 17 years incarcerated. The oldest of seven children, he started using marijuana and alcohol when he was 12.
It’s been five years since Dezotelle started treatment the first time, and he still hustles for drugs every day. Only now, instead of heroin or OxyContin, he’s trying to score buprenorphine, one of three federally approved opioid-addiction medications. He says heroin is much easier to find, and it’s less than half the price of buprenorphine on the streets and parking lots of this college town.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, was among the first in the nation to address the opioid epidemic. He devoted his entire State of the State address to the crisis in 2014. Since then, his administration and many of Vermont’s private practice doctors have made treatment more available than it is in most of the country.
But it’s not enough.
In this state of about 626,000, almost 500 addicts are on waiting lists to receive medication for opioid dependence. More than half will wait close to a year.
Nationwide, a shortage of doctors willing to prescribe buprenorphine, which reduces drug cravings, and a federal limit on the number of patients they can treat, prevents many who could benefit from the addiction medication from getting it.
Less than half of the 2.2 million people who need treatment for opioid addiction are receiving it, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said this month, previewing President Barack Obama’s new budget, which was released Tuesday and proposes $1.1 billion to expand the availability of buprenorphine and other opioid-addiction medications.