Western Carolina Rescue Mission
Western Carolina Rescue Mission is located on Patton Avenue in downtown Asheville. Angie Newsome / Carolina Public Press

Buncombe County is looking at adding new positions and funding a nearly $1 million strategy to address the opioid epidemic locally.

As the rate of opioid addictions nationally has increased, the numbers regionally have followed. Last year, doctors prescribed more than 16 million pain pills in Buncombe County, up from 12 million in 2011.

According to Dr. Blake Fagan, a doctor at Mountain Area Health Education Center, efforts to curb the opioid crisis need to address treatment and also the issue of over-prescription.

“You can get addicted within one prescription,” Fagan said. He said prescriptions for painkillers should be for 3 days or less, though initial prescriptions are often for 30 to 60 days, then someone will find the unused pills and get hooked, he said.

At Tuesday’s County Commissioners’ meeting, Jim Holland, of the Buncombe County Health and Human Services, presented an updated report to the County representatives, and asked for nearly a million dollars to help curb the accelerating opioid epidemic.

Drug poisoning causes more deaths annually in North Carolina than either traffic accidents, or firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control annual report last issued in 2014.

Holland recommended the county create three new positions for community paramedics, to fund a media campaign aimed at educating the public on opioid addiction, to support a 14-bed treatment facility for mothers recovering from drug addiction that’s currently under construction, and fund a peer-support network.

The commissioners are currently putting together the budget for 2018 and will be voting on it in a few months. Commissioner Ellen Frost said they have already committed $1 million dedicated to efforts that help animals.

“This is great and important, but this here is killing our citizens,” said Frost, who asked the commissioners to vote to give funding to the opioid relief projects Tuesday night, a decision that the commission ultimately voted to delay until the next meeting.

The 14-bed facility is part of the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, which currently provides shelter and job training to men struggling with homelessness. The county will vote April 4 on paying $365,000 to support the new facility, which would provide shelter to women who are mothers struggling with drug abuse.

Western Carolina Rescue Ministries currently offers a 12-month residential drug and alcohol treatment to men, but this will be a new way to support women who are mothers struggling with drug abuse. Each of the rescue mission’s programs also combines a faith component.

The addition of three community paramedics to Buncombe County EMS would cost $95,000 per position. They would provide follow-up after an overdose episode, and provide support for creating a long-term treatment plan, similar to what happens now in follow-up after domestic violence cases, when someone who is abused can be followed up with a few days after to talk about a plan for getting out of the abusive situation.

Holland also asked the County for $100,000 to pay for a media campaign to educate the public about the dangers of opioid addiction.

“Is there enough experience nationally or in other communities around the country to show what’s effective?” asked Commission Chair Brownie Newman. He said he wants to know what’s working in other areas, and recommended $200,000 for the media campaign. The commissioners will also vote on this April 4.

A statewide epidemic

North Carolina began the Controlled Substances Reporting System in 2011. Data from this can be found on the state’s Health and Human Services website.

In 2016, doctors in Buncombe County wrote 232,139 prescriptions for pain pills, prescribing an average of 68 pain pills per resident.

Despite the increase in prescriptions, Buncombe has still remained behind most of the other counties in North Carolina in numbers of pain pills prescribed, ranking it 39 on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the county with the most pills prescribed per resident.

Counties bordering Buncombe, including McDowell and Rutherford are some of the most prescribed counties in the State.

Counties bordering Tennessee including: Cherokee, Graham, Swain, and Mitchell each ranked 88 or above on a scale of 1 to 100 of how many pills were prescribed per resident. The County with the highest prescription rate in North Carolina is southeastern Columbus County, whose county seat is Whiteville.

Candler resident Jerry Rice objected to giving $1 million of taxpayer money to curb the epidemic. To him, it should be in the hospital’s hands.

“The doctors have already soaked up money for these patients, and they’re coming back to us to help them,” Rice said. “It wouldn’t be a national problem if the medical community didn’t start it.”

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Amanda James is a contributing government reporter for Carolina Public Press.

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