Opioid forum targets leaders


Jeff Dixon


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Pasquotank County is partnering with neighboring local governments to hold a “leadership forum” this fall on combating opioid abuse.

Last month, Pasquotank commissioners heard a request from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners to bring local leaders together to combat what health officials are calling an “epidemic” of opioid abuse across the state. Commissioners charged Jeff Dixon, chairman of the county’s special projects committee, with organizing that meeting.

On Thursday, Dixon and other county officials met with leaders from Camden, and Perquimans counties, as well as Elizabeth City and Albemarle Regional Health Services, to start planning what will be a meeting for the region’s elected officials.

ARHS Public Health and Response Coordinator Ashley Stoop provided a starting point for Thursday’s meeting by summarizing the seven-county health department’s efforts so far to combat opioid abuse. In the last two years, ARHS helped buy anti-overdose medication for law enforcement agencies and give them prescription drug drop boxes, hold medication take-back events and host educational programs in public schools.

Having exhausted grant funding through its “Project Lazarus” project, Stoop said ARHS is continuing its efforts as the Albemarle Overdose Prevention Coalition. Area law enforcement agencies are also pursuing “assisted diversion” programs to help rehabilitate rather than incarcerate opioid abusers who commit low-level offenses, she noted.

Simply making local officials aware of the scope of the problem is a key first step, meeting attendees agreed. They said people need to know about the rising emergency room visits and fatalities due to opioid abuse, and know about the efforts that health officials and first responders are already making.

There’s also reason to believe their help is needed if the problem is to improve. Opioid abuse in 2017 is trending to surpass abuse in 2016 and 2015, Dixon said, based on statistics Stoop provided.

However, Mayor Joe Peel stressed the importance of not overloading officials with information. The problem is so big and involves so many agencies that it would be hard to present or understand it in one meeting, he said. He suggested the presentation focus on ways local officials can support health and law enforcement officials.

Peel said elected officials need to focus on prevention, and keeping people from abusing drugs in the first place. He said people have to know drugs are no escape from bad circumstances, and that there isn’t enough government funding, even at the federal level, to help everyone recover from addiction.

To that point, Pasquotank Commissioner Bill Sterritt, also a member of the Pasquotank Department of Social Services Board of Directors, noted that federal reimbursements for methadone, an addiction treatment drug, are limited. People of limited means might have to spend hundreds of dollars a month for daily treatments, he said.

Commissioner Bettie Parker also noted that Trillium Health Resources, the region’s mental health and substance abuse agency, is getting cut by $11 million, while federal lawmakers are considering Medicaid cuts as part of Congress’ proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Though state and federal lawmakers are also supporting additional funding specifically for the opioid problem, she questioned whether they’d provide long-term, sustainable funding.

Following the meeting, Dixon said he expected Thursday’s working group to meet two more times before September’s forum; he also noted the group includes former Albemarle Hospital administrator Jan King Robinson as a facilitator.

Dixon also said there’s interest in holding meetings for the public about opioid abuse, but his group is focused for now on engaging elected officials.