ASHEVILLE, N.C. (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Sinclair Broadcast Group and WLOS hosted the third installment in the ongoing series of town halls to raise awareness of the country's most deadly drug epidemic.
Eric Bolling moderated the event as part of the "Our Voice, Our Future" series. The town hall was streamed live from Asheville, North Carolina and is available on all of Sinclair's websites. Bolling and his wife Adrienne became outspoken activists in the battle against opioid addiction after losing their 19-year-old son to an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2017.
The panel of guests featured North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, State Senator Jim Davis, Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed and Melinda Ramage, the co-founder of Project CARA, a program that helps pregnant women access treatment for substance abuse.
Guests focused on what is being done in North Carolina and nationally to combat the crisis through public education and prevention programs, improved medical and addiction treatment and new tools for the law enforcement community.
Legal and illegal opioids have impacted every demographic group and virtually every community across the United States. In 2017 opioids were involved in 47,600 deaths, more than 67 percent of all documented drug overdose deaths. According to a recent study by the National Safety Council, Americans are now more likely to die from an opioid overdose than in a motor vehicle accident.
North Carolina has been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis. Between 2016 and 2017, opioid overdose deaths in North Carolina increased at a rate of more than three times the national average. At 22.5 percent, it was the second fastest rate in the nation.
Since then, the state has embarked on an ambitious strategic action plan to reduce opioid overdose deaths 20 percent by 2021. Last year, North Carolina's rate of overdose deaths slowed to 5.5 percent, according to preliminary CDC data, a marked improvement over the previous year.
Since taking office in 2017, Attorney General Stein has made combating the opioid epidemic a top priority. According to Stein, expanding access to Medicaid would be "the single most effective thing" North Carolina could do to combat the opioid epidemic.
"This epidemic is both a supply problem and a demand problem," Stein told Bolling. Stopping demand means tackling the problem of addiction. "We need to help them get the health care they need so that they're no longer addicted."
Studies show that counseling plus medication-assisted therapies with drugs like methadone or buprenorphine is a more effective and recommended way to treat opioid addiction. However, many choose not to seek help because of the cost of treatment. By adopting Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, Stein believes more people will have the opportunity to get the help they need.
Republican State Sen. Jim Davis was wary of Medicaid expansion but agreed that both the state and federal government need to invest more in addiction treatment. The 2017 HOPE Act, which Davis sponsored, provided $10 million in additional treatment money for the state beginning in the next fiscal year.
"We have to get these individuals longterm care," the senator emphasized, noting some treatments could require years and even a lifetime. "It's a modern-day plague that we have to address," he said.
The state recently received $31 million in grants from the federal government for addiction treatment resources. State leaders appreciated the funds which helped roughly 3,000 people. But with anywhere from 70,000 to 90,000 North Carolinians struggling with addiction, Stein said the federal dollars are still "a drop in the bucket."
North Carolina is also an example of how the opioid crisis evolved from doctors' offices to the streets. For years, prescription pain medications like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine were the leading cause of opioid overdose in the state. By 2016, that trend began to shift. As doctors and hospitals cracked down on overprescribing those drugs, more Americans turned to less expensive, more dangerous street drugs.
Like other parts of the country, heroin and fentanyl are now the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths and opioid-related emergency room visits in the state. The latest data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services show heroin and fentanyl were responsible for the overwhelming majority of overdose deaths (80 percent). Nationally, fentanyl was involved in more than half of all fatal opioid overdoses.
Stein is one of many state attorneys general who has sued the pharmaceutical giant, Perdue for its alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic. For years, Perdue aggressively marketed the opioid OxyContin and offered financial incentives to doctors who prescribed the drug. Stein insisted that Perdue and the pharmaceutical industry were a "primary driver of this epidemic."
Attorney General Stein is also pushing health care as an approach for the state's law enforcement authorities. Simply arresting someone for consuming drugs or engaging in crime to feed their addiction doesn't break the cycle, he explained. People go to jail addicted and leave addicted.
"Law enforcement has a new approach," he continued. "Let's get people, to the extent possible, out of criminal justice and into health care."
Chief Bill Hollingsed has been focused on implementing a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program to break the cycle of criminality and addiction. We hope to break the cycle of addiction to break their cycle of criminality," he said.
As a first responder, Hollingsed often finds himself on the frontlines of providing life-saving overdose reversal drugs like naloxone and Narcon, an easy to administer naloxone nasal spray. In 2017, emergency first responders in North Carolina administered 15,282 naloxone doses.
"Not to be terse about it, but we call it Jesus in a bottle at times," Hollingsed said. The police department is currently working with schools, job sites and others to ensure they have access to naloxone.
Sinclair kicked off the "Our Voice, Our Future" series two months ago at Liberty University. First lady Melania Trump headlined the event and spoke to students and families about opioid abuse, the third pillar of her "Be Best" initiative. She also addressed the growing problem of opioid abuse among expecting mothers.
In recent years, obstetricians have seen a spike in the number of babies born with an opioid dependency, called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and experience symptoms of withdrawal during their very first weeks of life. According to the CDC, there were 21,732 infants born with an opioid dependency in 2012, the equivalent of one baby born every 25 minutes.
Melinda Ramage is the medical director and co-founder of helped found Project CARA, which provides comprehensive substance use treatment for pregnant women and new mothers. The purpose of the program is to provide "safe spaces" for women and their health care providers.
Project CARA found that 70 percent of women who are pregnant and struggling with substance abuse will first confide in their obstetrician. That is partly due to the shame and stigma of being pregnant and addicted, Ramage explained.
"Never in the addiction in the addiction world is there a more stigmatized population than the pregnant woman," she said. Project CARA works to overcome that stigma with an "open door" approach. The program guarantees that a woman can confide that she is pregnant and struggling with addiction. Project CARA will not call the police or the department of social services, they will offer help, Ramage said.
Since it was founded in 2014, Project CARA has helped hundreds of patients through the Mountain Area Health Education Center's (MAHEC) high-risk pregnancy division.
Sinclair's national conversation on opioids continued in Washington, D.C. with a December town hall featuring top officials in the Trump administration, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie. The D.C. town hall focused on the growing problem of illicit fentanyl as well as helping veterans overcome the stigma of addiction.
Last week's town hall was broadcast live from Laredo, Texas, and featured a timely, in-depth discussion of drugs and border security. Federal and local leaders discussed their work in stopping the trafficking of heroin and other opioids across the southern border and managing the addiction crisis.
"Our Voice, Our Future" seeks to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of addiction while exploring solutions to the drug crisis and holding accountable those who bear responsibility.
Sinclair Broadcast Group is committed to fighting the opioid crisis. Tuesday's town hall was streamed live on all of Sinclair's websites and it will be re-broadcasted on multiple Sinclair stations.