Rx Rated | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published May 9, 2012 at 11:44 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The front page of the Saturday Rutland Herald carried the headline, “Legislature Grinds to an End Today.” As lawmakers headed into their last day of the session, the article suggested, the state Senate was “acting like a runaway freight train without brakes.”

For the third straight night, the story said, the Senate had worked until 10 p.m. trying to finish the people’s business. But heading toward the day of adjournment, the Senate remained “caught up by the last-minute flurry of bills that have come pouring in from the House chamber.”

Among those bills: one that would give police controversial powers to fight a drug epidemic; another would approve millions of dollars for a new state office building.

The front page from last Saturday’s Herald?

Nope. That was the front page from Saturday, March 23, 1968, when Phil Hoff was governor and Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

The more things change, the more they stay the same — except, that is, for the early adjournment date.

Allen Gilbert of the Vermont ACLU was passing around that scrap of history at the Statehouse last week as the 2012 legislative session hurtled toward adjournment. Gilbert was battling a bill passed in the Senate and backed by Gov. Peter Shumlin that would have given police easier access to the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System, a vast database containing two million prescription records.

The governor wants to give cops more power to fight what he and others call an “epidemic” of prescription opiate abuse that is destroying young lives and driving property crimes. But the House blocked that provision, saying police should have a warrant before snooping into medical records.

Gilbert dug up the old newspaper clipping to remind policy makers that Vermont police already have unfettered access to pharmacy records — and have for decades. They just have to visit pharmacies in person to inspect them, rather than using the online database to spot signs of doctor shopping and drug diverting.

Since that 1968 bill was signed into law, police can walk into any pharmacy and request to see prescription records if a crime is suspected. No warrant is required and the customers are never notified.

Feel safer?

Shumlin got almost everything he wanted this session — a health care exchange, Irene recovery money, and a huge investment in roads and bridges. But he lost big on the prescription-monitoring issue. All because House members wouldn’t cave on Vermonters’ constitutional right to privacy.

Don’t think Shumlin’s giving up, though. The governor’s made it pretty clear he’s going to reintroduce the pill bill next year — in the meantime, he’ll be campaigning for reelection on the urgency of Vermont’s prescription opiate epidemic.

Shumlin’s farewell speech to the Senate on Saturday concluded with one last scolding of recalcitrant House members, who opposed the monitoring bill. “I think those who didn’t pass the bill will regret it, and will be back next January perhaps more ready to do the right thing,” Shumlin said.

The governor also took a veiled swipe at the press — specifically at Associated Press reporter Dave Gram — for a provocative story Gram penned last week that questioned, in so many words, whether Vermont has a worsening prescription opiate epidemic at all, or if politicians have ginned up the problem to serve an agenda.

“It is an epidemic,” Shumlin insisted.

Gram’s story quoted a new Department of Health report that found misuse of prescription opiates in Vermont is “declining or remaining steady.” What’s more, health data show deaths tied to Rx opiates declined every year from 2006 to 2011. Vermont has significantly improved its standing among states with regard to nonmedical use of pain relievers — from 11th in 2006, to 34th in 2009.

Gram’s story raised fundamental questions at an inconvenient time for backers of the database bill — just as they were trying to persuade House negotiators that the scope of the drug problem warranted a controversial expansion of police powers.

Maybe that explains the public pushback by some lawmakers. During his own farewell remarks on Saturday, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) reiterated the governor’s “epidemic” assessment of the prescription-drug problem and urged anyone who doubts that to “talk to anyone in Vermont.” Gram was standing up in the Senate gallery at the time.

Talk about awkward!

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was quoted in Gram’s story expressing surprise that health department figures show a decline in prescription drug abuse.

“That’s not the information we were given” in committee hearings, Sears told Gram. “If the statistics don’t bear that out, they should have told the governor before he called it an epidemic.”

By the next day, Sears had changed his tune. At the start of tense negotiations with House leaders over the faltering prescription database bill, Sears said, “The deaths may be down, but the use is epidemic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The use has not declined.”

Actually, the use has declined — just as Gram reported. Overall, misuse of prescription opiates is trending down, according to Barbara Cimaglio, deputy health commissioner for alcohol and drug abuse programs. But the number of people seeking treatment for prescription-pill addiction is skyrocketing, as more people trade heroin for OxyContin and similar drugs, Cimaglio says. Part of the reason treatment is increasing is because more money is being made available for it.

Those sorts of distinctions don’t make the tidiest “epidemic” narrative. But it’s the truth.

As Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), a staunch opponent of the database bill, said last week: “I’m a teacher. I’m a social worker. I believe in data.

“No one’s disagreeing that we have a problem,” added Pugh. “The only thing we disagree on is the way law enforcement should be able to access data in the database. Vermonters expect privacy.”

Army Privates

A load of dirty laundry from the Vermont National Guard landed squarely on the Senate floor last week.

While debating an “omnibus” National Guard bill that addressed a bunch of soldier issues — benefits, discipline, leave policy — Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) read from an email by Lt. Col. Ellen Abbott detailing the serial misdeeds of an anonymous staff sergeant. A section of the bill would have created “intermediate” penalties for miscreant Guard soldiers — harsher than a letter of reprimand, but less serious than being discharged — and Abbott’s letter was meant to illustrate why such penalties are needed.

According to Abbott’s email, the staff sergeant in question — we’ll call him Sgt. Creepy Dude — was accused of at least three instances of harassment and misconduct before he faced a possible discharge.

During a two-week training stint in 2010, Abbott said Sgt. Creepy Dude called an overweight private “fat ass,” “fat face” and “fat mouth” in front of others, and also threw a radio microphone at his face.

During that same stint, Sgt. Creepy Dude allegedly whispered in a female private’s ear, “Don’t touch yourself” when she was fidgeting with the top Velcro tab of her uniform. He told her later, “I just want you to know how beautiful I think you are, and I don’t know why you are working here. Is there anything that I can do to enhance your evening tonight?” Later, he touched a female subordinate’s leg near her pants pocket, and put his hand over hers to guide a computer mouse.

All of this led to a letter of reprimand and counseling for Sgt. Creepy Dude. But he retained his stripes. By the following summer, he was up to his old tricks again.

According to Abbott’s email, in September 2011, Sgt. Creepy Dude was training two female specialists and allegedly showed them websites called Knockers for the Troops and Hot Bods for Military Broads.

“He told one specialist that she should send in a picture of herself to the website,” Abbott wrote in her email to Illuzzi. “He also instructed the other specialist to ‘back your cute butt up.’”

What in the name of Ethan Allen took the Guard so long to crack down on this sick bastard?

“When you look at the facts, yeah, sometimes they could look really egregious,” Abbott tells Fair Game. “But there’s two sides to every case. And he could have denied doing those things to the commander.”

The women didn’t pursue criminal charges against Sgt. Creepy Dude, but his behavior was the subject of a court-style discharge hearing before Guard lawyers, Abbott says. The final decision about whether he should be discharged is up to Adjutant General Michael Dubie, who has yet to make a ruling.

There’s another reason for not dismissing soldiers hastily: As Illuzzi explained on the floor, the military invests a lot of time and money in each soldier, and prefers to course correct wayward investments — er, Guard members — rather than fire them. Abbott believes that if the Guard had been able to strip Sgt. Creepy Dude of his rank after the first instance, he might have been rehabilitated — or at least wouldn’t have been in a position to harass subordinates.

Ultimately, the Guard bill passed — but without the section on discipline. Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), a Vietnam War veteran, convinced a majority of colleagues to replace the intermediate punishment option with a study. By January 2013, the Guard must submit a report to the legislature detailing the number and nature of disciplinary cases that arise. Abbott says it averages about six a year.

Meanwhile, let’s hope Sgt. Creepy Dude keeps his combat porn to himself.

Four’s a Crowd?

Burlington wants to use zoning codes to muzzle the party animals in the Queen City’s “college ghetto.”

For the second time since February, city councilors are considering an occupancy ordinance that would limit households to no more than four unrelated adults in the high-density district around the University of Vermont and Champlain College.

Landlords and homeowners packed the city council meeting Monday night to sound off on the ordinance sponsored by Council President Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) and Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2). Emily Lee, who owns a house on Bradley Street, said partying students kept her awake until 2 a.m. last Saturday.

“I called the police three times and, as a result, my house was egged,” Lee told councilors. “Our neighborhood is in crisis, and I ask for your help.”

Landlord Gene Richards, who owns 20 rental properties on Buell Street, Hungerford Terrace and elsewhere, told the council, “You’re not enforcing the laws you have. We have a noise ordinance and part of that ordinance was to notify landlords [when tenants were cited by police]. In two years, you haven’t done it. There are problems, absolutely, but this isn’t the solution.”

Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) admitted that Richards was right — the city does have tools to sober up the college ghetto. But he called those “Band-Aids to patch a chronic problem.” Adrian joined 12 other councilors in voting to move the measure forward to the Ordinance Committee.

Noticeably absent from the Monday evening council meeting? Students. They must have been out partying — or stocking up on eggs.