← Back Published on

Fighting Back: County Approves Opioid Aid

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Aug. 19, 2022.

Moore County, much like the rest of the country, is battling an opioid epidemic that has worsened during the pandemic.

Even as the crisis intensifies, state and local governments are getting new resources to take on the opioid epidemic. This has largely come in the form of billion dollar settlements with drug companies that for years downplayed the addictive nature of their products.

The county took in $240,435 at the end of June from one of these settlements — the first payment in a $6.25 million opioid settlement the county will collect over the next 18 years. Last week, the Board of Commissioners took its first steps toward allocating those funds and fighting back against the epidemic.

The opioid epidemic has climbed to new heights since the start of the pandemic, with North Carolina recording 3,759 deaths from opioids in 2021, according to data from the state’s opioid-tracking dashboard. The dashboard shows Moore County has seen similar trends: in 2019, the county saw 21 drug overdose deaths; in 2020, it recorded 23 deaths; and in 2022, it recorded 29 deaths.

“We get two or three calls a day for people wanting help,” said Karen Wicker, who’s on the board for Drug Free Moore County and previously served as its executive director. Drug Free Moore County was created 30 years ago by the county commissioners to address substance abuse in the county. A private, non-profit organization, it supports the county’s addiction recovery services, often working alongside the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We need more resources to help those that are seeking help,” Wicker said. “This problem is not going away.”

On Feb. 25, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announced the $26 billion national opioid settlement with drugmakers had been finalized. The settlement with the nation’s three major pharmaceutical distributors — Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen — and Johnson & Johnson awarded $750 million to North Carolina. Local governments are receiving 85 percent of the funds allocated; states will receive the other 15 percent.

The funds will go toward a diverse group of stakeholders doing their part to tackle the opioid epidemic, county officials said. The funds are intended to provide financial resources to on-the-ground efforts to combat the epidemic with overdose response and prevention programs and harm-reduction strategies. There is no requirement to spend the funds within a certain time frame of receiving them.

The county’s first payment comes as states across the country are seeing more large-scale settlements with drug companies. Earlier this month, Stein announced a new settlement deal with opioid maker Endo International, plc that would bring another $450 million to participating states and local governments and ban promotion of Endo’s opioids. Moreover, at the end of July, Stein announced two separate multi-million dollar settlements with pharmaceutical companies Allergan and Teva that together would bring participating states and local governments $6.62 billion to fight the epidemic.

“I’m tremendously excited about the potential to have this be a turning point, so that we can drive the opioid death rate back down,” Stein told The Pilot in an interview this past March. “I'm certain there will be people alive and healthy next year who otherwise would have died if we didn't get these resources into communities,” he added.

Moore County has already taken recent steps to improve conditions. One example of this is creating an opioid dashboard on the county website, which includes links to other sites offering data on opioid use. These sites give a broad overview on the factors that have contributed to the epidemic, including information that shows the social determinants of health, such as economic stability, unemployment rates and access to healthcare.

With rising case numbers, those on the front lines of the epidemic — law enforcement agencies, emergency service teams, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and non-profit organizations — are struggling to keep up with the increasing number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths.

Support groups, many of which attended the meeting, say the new opioid settlement funds could go a long way in furthering their ability to care for patients suffering from addiction. These organizations included Drug Free Moore County, Sandhills Adult and Teen Challenge, Sandhills Opioid Response Consortium, TIDES Sandhills and the Sandhills Center.

“This is very significant for us,” said Russ Cambria, the executive director for Sandhills Teen Challenge. “We love our model, we feel it’s been successful, but funding like this helps us add value to our program.” He said that the number of patients has grown from 17 to 45 patients in the past year, while staffing levels have remained the same.

“We’re manning the same systems with staff that we had when we had 17 (patients) and now we’ve more than doubled that,” Cambria said. “We just need resources to continue to do what we're doing.”

Roxanne Elliot, a member of the Opioid Response Consortium and the project director for Firsthealth of the Carolinas, said the funds should be used to complement existing efforts and programs.

“Let's use these funds to not duplicate efforts, but let's use these funds to fill gaps that have been identified,” she said, “and/or grow what is already on the ground and make it even better.”

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields, who has been outspoken about the toll the epidemic has exacted on citizens — and the responsibility of law enforcement agencies to act in the face of it — agreed that more resources were needed to stop the death toll from climbing.

“We already know we can’t arrest our way out of it,” Fields said. “We’ve got to have education, we’ve got to have resources — hospitals and other places that we can send these folks to as patients.”

Sheriff’s Office Major Andy Conway said funding could be used to help support inmates suffering from addiction who need special treatment, like pregnant women. Nonprofits can help supplement the jail’s medical support services for inmates with opioid addictions. “I think the right players are at the table for the jail moving forward,” he said.

Misty Leland, the county attorney who has also been recognized for her work securing opioid settlements for local governments, said the funds represent a “strict compliance situation” and can only be used for the purposes of combating the opioid epidemic.

“There are going to be state and national watch dogs of all local governments receiving these funds, along with the auditing process and reporting process,” Leland said.

The funds have already been put into a separate account with restricted access, she said. Leland offered two routes the commissioners could pursue when it comes to directing the funds.

She said one option would be to have a strategic plan for 12 existing strategies and the possibility of forming a drug-rehabilitation court. The other option would be to have a broad stakeholder group with action divided into three categories for treatment and prevention of opioid addiction.

After some brief discussion, commissioners ultimately opted to go with the first option, which they agreed was more straightforward and would yield faster results. Leland said the commissioners would still be able to create an informal stakeholder group with this option.

The organizations fighting the opioid crisis also announced events in the near future to raise awareness about the epidemic. On Sept. 24, the Sheriff’s Office is hosting a “hopeful recovery” event at Aberdeen Lake from 2-5 p.m. The event will feature speakers who will give testimony relating to the public health crisis.

Drug Free Moore County is also sponsoring an awareness event on Sept. 25 from 1-5 p.m. at The Fair Barn. Speakers will give testimony at the event, which will also feature mocktails and appetizers.