Bennington ambulance service and recovery center team up to reach drug users

Bennington ambulance service and recovery center team up to reach drug users
Bill Camarda, executive director of the Bennington Rescue Squad, staffs a booth at the annual MayFest event, providing harm reduction materials and education to members of the community. Photo courtesy of Bennington Rescue Squad.

The Bennington Rescue Squad and the Turning Point Center of Bennington have launched a new kind of partnership to reach people with substance use disorders who have so far been falling through the cracks. The Vermont Office of Emergency Medical Services calls it the first collaboration of its kind in the state.

Whenever the rescue squad responds to a substance-related call – many of them nonfatal opioid overdoses – emergency responders offer to take patients to the local emergency room, where volunteer peer coaches with the Turning Point Center are on standby to talk about paths to recovering from substance abuse.

But of the 20 to 30 emergency calls the squad receives every month, at least 25% of the patients refuse to be taken to the hospital, said squad director Bill Camarda. For those five to 10 people, emergency responders can only leave them with opioid antidote kits and printed information about where to seek help.  

“They really don’t want to have anything to do with the health care system,” Camarda said. “But at the same time, they’re not in the right mindset to be like, ‘I really need some help right now.’”

He said those patients are deterred by several factors: the stigma attached to drug use, a belief that nothing can help them, or preoccupation with getting their next dose, which will get rid of withdrawal symptoms.

After seeing dozens of local residents with substance use disorder fall through cracks in the system each year, the two Bennington nonprofit organizations decided to partner on another way to reach them. 

Starting June 9, when someone who shows signs or a history of substance use disorder refuses to be taken to the emergency department by the Bennington Rescue Squad, Camarda said paramedics on scene ask for written consent to share the patient’s name, contact information and case summary with the Turning Point Center.

If patients agree, peer coaches will visit them within 24 to 48 hours and discuss the resources available in combating substance use disorder. 

Bennington EMT Rick Noel preparing harm reduction kits to hand out for at-risk individuals and at public events. Photo courtesy of Bennington Rescue Squad

“We have the opportunity to potentially get ahead of some of these crises,” said Margae Diamond, executive director of the Bennington Turning Point Center.

Like they do at the hospital emergency room, the coaches may discuss medication-assisted treatment, psychotherapy, recovery coaching, support group meetings and organizations that can help with finding work or a new home.

During these home visits, Diamond said, recovery coaches will pair up with a local mental health professional from United Counseling Service, in recognition that substance use and mental health are often closely linked.

On top of the growing number of opioid overdose deaths, the Bennington recovery center is also concerned about the pervasive use of alcohol. The state Department of Health has reported that last year in Vermont, excessive alcohol use was associated with nearly one in four deaths among people ages 20-34 and nearly one in five deaths of those ages 35-49.


“The ricochet of problems that develop from long-term alcohol use is something that we’d like to be able to identify earlier and provide some connection to resources,” Diamond said.

Since the partnership’s launch in June, however, only three patients have allowed the rescue squad to share their information with the recovery center. The leaders of both organizations say they’re working on strategies to increase participation, such as fine-tuning how their staffers communicate with patients.

Still, the state EMS Office lauds the initiative, saying it’s a model for other Vermont communities. 

“The seriousness of the opioid crisis and increasing number of overdoses and deaths necessitates innovation and locally developed solutions,” said Bambi Dame, the state health department’s emergency medical services chief.

She said some groups in Chittenden County are already discussing setting up a similar partnership.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Bennington ambulance service and recovery center team up to reach drug users.

Homecoming: Race, place and living with the Tar River