Driven by a shared goal that “all pathways will lead to freedom and survival from opioid addiction and dependence in the Sandhills region,” a partnership of more than 25 health and human services organizations in Hoke, Lee, Montgomery, Moore and Richmond counties recently won a $1 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration to implement activities to address opioid abuse prevention, treatment and recovery.
“Opioids are killing people and destroying families,” said Jason Jerry, M.D., medical director of FirstHealth Behavioral Services. “As a nation, we have seen an exponential increase in drug overdose deaths with the increased use of opioids in the last 20 years. The Sandhills region is equally affected, so this grant will be a tremendous help in our local efforts to battle the opioid epidemic.”
Jason Jerry, M.D., medical director, FirstHealth Behavioral Services. (courtesy photo)
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that in 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States.
Of those deaths, almost 68% involved a prescription or illicit opioid. In North Carolina, reported deaths from drug overdose in 2017 totaled 2,414, more than 1,900 of which were attributed to opioids.
The Sandhills claimed a substantial share of those 2017 opioid overdose deaths. Hoke, Lee, Montgomery, Moore and Richmond counties recorded 44 opioid poisoning deaths, 158 opioid poisoning emergency department visits and 769 emergency visits for all drug poisonings, according to data from the North Carolina Disease Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool (NC DETECT).
What’s more, these statistics tell just a part of the story. Mike Dutton, director of FirstHealth EMS – Montgomery, reports that in the last 12 months, 66 people in Montgomery County were treated by his team for opioid overdose and about 20 of those chose to not go to the hospital for further treatment. “That means many people are not getting the help they need, and that’s just my county,” he said.
Roxanne Elliott, M.S., grant director and policy director of FirstHealth Community Health Services, the consortium’s convening partner, reports that work on prescription drug misuse and abuse in the Sandhills began in 2007 with a handful of agencies and individuals convening to increase awareness of the problem and install drop boxes for unused prescription medications, a measure to help ensure they don’t get into the wrong hands.
Roxanne Elliott, M.S., grant director and policy director of FirstHealth Community Health Services. (courtesy photo)
“Now in 2019 with more than 25 agencies working together, we have incredible power to make a real difference for people struggling with the disease of addiction. The funding from this recent grant will take our current work to the next level,” she reports, referring to work funded by previous grants also from HRSA: Rural Outreach Grant of almost $600,000, Network Planning Grant of $100,000 and Rural Health Opioid Program of almost $660,000. The new project’s total budget is $1.25 million, with $1 million (80 percent of the total) coming from the federal grant and $250,000 (20 percent) from private sources and in-kind donations.
The Sandhills Opioid Response Consortium consists of agencies across the five-county area representing health care, non-profit organizations, law enforcement, behavioral health, public health, county government, harm reduction, and treatment and recovery.
Members include, but are not limited to, FirstHealth Community Health Services, FirstHealth Behavioral Health Services, FirstHealth Physician Group, FirstHealth EMS, Sandhills Emergency Physicians, Hoke County Health Department, Moore County Health Department, Moore County Sheriff Office, Sandhills Center, Drug Free Moore County, Community Care of NC, Alcohol and Drug Services, Lee County Health Department, Lee County Sheriff Office, Lee County, Spectrum Recovery, Central Carolina Hospital, NC Harm Reduction, Montgomery County Health Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, Montgomery County Department of Social Services, Daymark Recovery Services, Richmond County Health Department, Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Richmond County Department of Social Services, Richmond County Guardian Ad Litem, Renew Recovery Services. Elliott reports that she receives regular requests for new partners to join.
As a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Five-Point Strategy to Combat the Opioid Crisis, the federal grant covers opioid abuse prevention, treatment and recovery. Elliott says work in the Sandhills will comprise:
Prevention activities, including an increase in the availability of naloxone, a drug that can treat narcotic overdose in an emergency situation; education tools to help eliminate the stigma associated with addiction; professional development for health care providers; and increased early screening and intervention for individuals with a higher risk of substance use disorder. Other existing prevention activities will continue to be supported such as drug take-back programs and community-based prevention programs.
Treatment activities, including expanding access to medications that aid in the treatment of opioid addiction, also known as medication assisted treatment (MAT); retaining health care providers in rural areas; supporting an integrated model for substance abuse care; strengthening collaboration with law enforcement and first responders; and expanding treatment options such as telehealth, in which patients can receive treatment services online at home.
Recovery activities, including helping individuals to find, access and navigate treatment and recovery support services; developing robust recovery communities; training recovery coaches; expanding access to recovery support services; enhancing discharge coordination for people leaving inpatient treatment and/or the criminal justice system; coordinating transportation services to recovery resources; and supporting more effective and efficient referrals to recovery resources.
“I am excited for the change this funding will bring to our patients because it pays for essential services to those who otherwise would not have access,” said Jerry. “For example, if I start one of my hospital patients on medicated assisted treatment to help break the addiction cycle, this grant will pay for a prescription of the same drug to span the gap between the hospital stay and the first appointment with a recovery clinic. Ensuring sustained care during that bridge time is critical for long-term success.”
Dutton agreed. “Among other resources to be used by our EMS teams, this grant will supply first responders such as police and firefighters with Narcan kits so they can start to treat overdose victims even before paramedics arrive. Every second counts in an emergency, so these will be invaluable for saving even more lives.”
Nationwide, 80 rural consortia received the $1 million federal grant, called the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program-Implementation. Additional North Carolina grantees include Appalachian Mountain Community Health Centers in Asheville, Coastlands Ministries in Moravian Falls and the Stanly County Health Department in Albemarle.
“We have vigorous goals,” said Elliott. “By August of 2022, we want to reduce overdose deaths and overdose emergency department visits by 50 percent, expand treatment access and eliminate or reduce treatment costs for at least 10 uninsured or underinsured patients, and expand access to recovery services so more than 400 people battling addictions can start and stay in recovery. There is still a lot of work to address this health crisis, but we have a highly committed, motivated and passionate group of partners working in tandem to make a positive, measurable difference.”
FirstHealth Community Health Services assesses community needs and responds to those needs through programs and services that extend beyond the hospital walls. For more information, visit www.firsthealth.org/communityhealth.