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Scott defends top health official over ‘safe injection’ sites

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(The Center Square) – Gov. Phil Scott is disputing a civil liberties group’s claims that the state’s top health official illegally altered a report detailing how the state should spend opioid settlement money.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont on Thursday accused Health Commissioner Mark Levine of “unlawfully” removing a key recommendation of the Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee, which had called for $2.6 million in spending a year to facilitate “safe injection” sites where addicts inject drugs under the supervision of medical workers.

The ACLU said in a letter to the state Department of Health that omission of the funding request in the panel’s final report violated both Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and the committee’s enabling legislation, calling it “an unlawful usurpation of the committee’s harm reduction mandate.”

Scott issued a statement saying the statutory process, which he said leaves budgetary decisions in the hands of the Department of Health, was “clearly followed” and noted that the budget recommendation was “informed by” the opioid advisory committee’s recommendations.

“State law was clearly followed, proper professional discretion was used, and the change to the committee recommendations, which were discussed in public session in accordance with the open meeting law, was transparently disclosed,” the statement said.

Scott’s statement said he was “disheartened” that Levine was “inappropriately smeared” by members of the Legislature’s leadership without consideration of the facts.

“Dr. Levine is a committed public servant who has dedicated his skills and expertise to public service,” the statement said. “He has always acted in good faith and made these recommendations well within his authority under state law and followed through on his obligations to the committee, my administration, and – most importantly – to Vermonters.

“He cares deeply about preventing the tragic loss of life from the opioid epidemic and will continue to work to find solutions from all sides of this issue.”

Vermont has been debating safe injection sites for several years amid record high numbers of opioid related overdose deaths.

Supporters of the move say state-sanctioned injection facilities, albeit controversial, would save lives. They say it would also expose addicts to a range of detox and treatment options.

Critics say the debate over injection sites is skewed by misinformation, misleading studies and arguments from supporters who say the programs are a panacea.

In 2022, Scott vetoed a bill that would have created one or more safe injection sites in the state. He said it would divert money away from “proven harm reduction strategies to plan injection sites without clear data on the effectiveness of this approach.”

Scott, a Republican, said in the statement that the “uncivil treatment” of his cabinet secretaries and commissioners by the Democratic-majority Legislature has “unfortunately become increasingly common.”

“We can have policy disagreements without hurling unfounded accusations and demeaning insults,” the statement said.

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