Bennington mental health center establishes opioid medication program

United Counseling Service’s headquarters on Ledgehill Drive in Bennington. Photo contributed by United Counseling Service…

Bennington mental health center establishes opioid medication program
Bennington mental health center establishes opioid medication program
United Counseling Service’s headquarters on Ledgehill Drive in Bennington. Photo contributed by United Counseling Service

A community mental health center in Bennington has launched an opioid medication program, which comes as southern Vermont continues to see an elevated rate of opioid overdose deaths.

United Counseling Service’s new program involves administering buprenorphine, medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat opioid use disorder. The medication is used to help people detoxify from illicit opioids, reduce the risk of overdoses and maintain long-term recovery.

The 65-year-old Bennington County nonprofit organization is now offering the outpatient service to help fill a local need for diverse treatment options under one roof, said Alex Figueroa, United Counseling Service’s assistant director of substance use disorder services.

Figueroa said the program — known as medication assisted treatment or medication for opioid use disorder — complements the organization’s existing services in this realm, such as case management, individual counseling and group therapy.

“Our goal is, really, to provide a full array and wraparound support services for folks that have substance use disorder,” he said, “to not just provide the treatment piece, but to provide an avenue of healing and recovery.”

Figueroa said the program aims to have 30 clients within 90 days of opening. It caters specifically to residents of Bennington County.

This addition to United Counseling Service’s array of programs comes a couple of weeks after the state released the death toll from fatal opioid overdoses in 2022.

The preliminary data shows 237 Vermonters died from accidental opioid overdoses, including 17 in Bennington County. The county had the fifth highest death rate based on population, while the other southern Vermont counties — Windham, Rutland and Windsor — were in the top three.

Margae Diamond, director of the Turning Point recovery center in Bennington, believes that United Counseling Service’s opioid medication program is a positive step in the state’s battle against the opioid epidemic.

“We absolutely need more options for people seeking help,” Diamond said. “For people with a diagnosed mental health condition, this is tremendous as it provides ease of access and a one-stop shop for combined mental health and substance use treatment and counseling.”

United Counseling Service joins four other organizations in Bennington County that provide the same service, said Dr. John Saroyan, executive director of Vermont’s Blueprint for Health, which runs the state’s Hub & Spoke treatment system for opioid use disorder in collaboration with the Department of Health.

The other opioid medication providers in the county are Battenkill Valley Health Center in Arlington, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s campus in Pownal, and Mount Anthony Primary Care and SaVida Health, both in Bennington.

They are categorized as “spoke” sites, which provide ongoing substance use disorder treatment in community settings. Treatment is integrated into general medical care, such as those for other chronic diseases.

Bennington County currently has no “hub,” a regional site that provides expanded services for complex substance use disorders. Hubs are the resource for their area’s most intensive treatment options.

“When we’re looking at the landscape of treatment options within Bennington County, that is the missing piece,” Figueroa said. “We just have to be a little bit patient.”

Dr. Saroyan said spoke sites are required to be enrolled in Vermont Medicaid and have a physical location where patients can be seen. Prescribers, on the other hand, need a valid Drug Enforcement Administration license to prescribe or administer controlled substances.

As of the third quarter of 2022, nearly 10,000 Vermonters were receiving medication for opioid use disorder, according to data from the Vermont Department of Health. It said this program has stabilized in the past two years after more than eight years of steady growth.

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