Community leaders discuss opioid epidemic, solutions with N.C. Attorney General

District Attorney Ted Bell, Rutherford Co. Sheriff Chris Francis, Attorney General Josh Stein and Suzanne Mizsur-Porter, Executive Director for United Way of Rutherford County discuss the opioid epidemic in Rutheford County. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

As the opioid & heroin epidemic continues to worsen, local communities are coming together to brainstorm ideas to combat the issue on all platforms.

Monday, a round table discussion was held in Rutherfordton. EMS, fire chiefs, law enforcement officers, city councilmen, town managers, medical providers, business leaders, and educators brought their concerns directly to North Carolina's Attorney General, Josh Stein.

There were several common themes that were discussed among the group.

One issue is lack of funding. Those at the meeting want a community health crisis center in the county so people being treated for addiction have a place to go. The hospital is not equipped to help them outside of saving them from an overdose. Those who want to beat their addictions need more. For the long-haul solution, the hope is to have a community health crisis center to give those people a place for long-term treatment.

"I believe we do not have enough treatment facilities, not only in Rutherford County, but across the whole state," Stein said.

Another theme is the collective effort needed to fight the crisis. Everyone who was in attendance has a stake in the situation. First responders need help responding to overdose calls. Police & sheriff's departments need help in tracking down the drug traffickers. Hospitals need help with the increase of patients coming in for overdoses. The local Department of Social Services is seeing an increase in child neglect, as parents look to get their next high. Schools are seeing an increase in truancy absences--where students have 10 or more unexcused absences throughout the school year. Even the economy and workforce are being hit, as more job applicants are unable to be hired due to criminal backgrounds or failing drug tests.

"I think employers will get to the point where they're fine if somebody has a history of drug use as long as they're not currently using," Stein told the group. "And we just have to help people get clean and I think that's the fundamental challenge that we're facing, not only here but it's a statewide issue and a national issue."

Rutherford County recently started a new program to help inmates who are addicted to opiates. The Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) and Reentry Program aims to help inmates long-term. Created by the Sheriff's Office, Family Preservation Services, United Way of Rutherford County, and District Attorney Ted Bell, the pilot program will help inmates for one year. Family Preservation Services provides the treatment in the jail, and will help inmates transition into community-based services once they are released. It uses a drug called Vivitrol, which blocks opiate cravings, along with behavioral therapy.

"The advantage Vivatrol has over the other ones is that it's once a month, rather than every day," Stein said. "So I can understand why it's an appealing option for the jails--at this point I'm just so excited that the Rutherford County Jail and Sheriff [Chris] Francis is doing this innovation."

The jail only offers inmates Vivatrol, as opposed to methadone or buprenorphine. AG Stein said he would like to see how successful this program is in the future, since different people respond differently to various drugs.

"Let's see how it [MAT] works, see if they're missing out on some people because they're using this one drug and not others. But I'm really excited about what Rutherford County is doing," he said.

Another issue Stein brought up involves Medicaid. He said the number one source of funding for drug treatment is Medicaid.

"The fact that North Carolina didn't expand Medcaid or has not yet expanded Medicaid means that there are hundreds of thousands of people who don't have health insurance, who could pay for treatment and reimburse doctors and clinics that aren't able to do that," he said.

He added, "That Washington is actually considering dramatically cutting Medicaid is even more concerning, so I sincerely hope they don't do that and instead work to try and find out ways to ensure more people have access to health care."

AG Stein also said that another issue involves insurance companies, and that his office is in an active diologue about the issue.

"Part of the problem is insurance companies don't pay doctors for the time to develop alternative pain strategies and they don't pay for the treatments efficiently," he said. "My office is working with a group that's engaging the insurance companies--United, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Medicaid--because until our health care system compensates people for doing the work, guess what? The work's not going to get done. At least not to the extent it needs to."

A similar round table was also held in McDowell County. On Wednesday, another will be held at the Cherokee Indian Police Department.

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