United Counseling Services headquarters on Ledgehill Drive in Bennington. Image contributed by United Counseling Services

A community mental health center in Bennington has launched an opioid medication program, which comes as southern Vermont sees high rates of opioid overdose deaths.

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

The 65-year-old Bennington County nonprofit now offers outpatient services under one roof to help meet the local need for a variety of treatment options, said Alex Figueroa, assistant director of substance use disorder services at United Counseling Services.

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

“Our goal is, really, to provide a full array and wrap-around support services for people with substance use disorders,” he said, “not just to provide the treatment part, but to provide a path to healing and recovery.”

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

The addition to United Counseling Services’ array of programs comes weeks after the state released the number of deaths from fatal opioid overdoses in 2022.

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

Marge Diamond, director of Bennington’s Turning Point Recovery Center, believes United Counseling Services’ opioid medication program is a positive step in the state’s fight against the opioid epidemic.

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

United Counseling Services joins four other agencies in Bennington County that offer similar services, said Dr. John Saroyan, executive director of the Health Department’s Vermont Blueprint, which runs the state’s hub-and-spoke treatment system for opioid use disorder in collaboration with the health department. .

Other opioid 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.

These are classified as “talk” sites, which provide ongoing substance use disorder treatment in community settings. Treatment is combined with general medical care, such as for other chronic diseases.

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

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

Vermont requires spoke sites to enroll in Medicaid and have a physical location where patients can be seen, Dr. Saroyan said. 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 the program has stabilized over the past two years after more than eight years of steady growth.

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