Addiction to prescription painkillers has been a leading cause of the opioid epidemic in the United States over the last two decades. File photo

A new program that will give low-level drug offenders the choice to enter treatment rather than face criminal charges has advocates and public officials already wondering how the initiative will be funded once state money that launched the program runs out.

The Waynesville Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program follows a model first launched in Seattle, Washington, in 2011, in which drug users suspected of possession of drugs or of committing property crimes or engaging in sex work to support their habits are offered intensive treatment rather than being booked on criminal charges. Several other cities across the nation followed suit, with Fayetteville launching North Carolina’s first LEAD program more than a year ago.

Waynesville, with a population of less than 10,000, will be the smallest jurisdiction in the country with a LEAD program, according to advocates. But that engagement with new and innovative methods of policing drug crimes follows a trend in the Haywood County town, where officers carry the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone and Chief of Police Bill Hollingsed has advocated for robust needle exchange programs.

“We’ve got to think outside of the box and come up with different solutions to deal with this crisis,” Hollingsed said. “The LEAD program goes hand-in-hand with law enforcement officers utilizing naloxone. We have a different philosophy here, and we look at it as an opportunity to save a life.”

Funding for the program is tied to a $15.5 million federal grant to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services that is designed to “increase access to prevention, treatment and recovery supports, reducing unmet treatment need, and reducing opioid-related overdoses and deaths,” according to DHHS documents.

State health officials report that 12,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in North Carolina between 1999 and 2016. Officials now say the state wants to reduce that death rate by 20 percent by 2021.

Funding was appropriated through the 21st Century Cures Act, which passed Congress in December 2016. Regional Local Management Entities/Managed Care Organizations that oversee mental health services in the state then allocate funding to the various initiatives tied to the grant.

Hollingsed told Carolina Public Press that the federal funding is sufficient to pay for the first years of the Waynesville LEAD program, including the hiring of a case manager and a peer support counselor. After that, the city and Haywood County, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition and the LME/MCO for the area, Vaya Health, will have to find new revenue streams.

“We’ll be looking back to the state for additional grant funding,” Hollingsed said. “We’re going to be going to the county and the municipalities as well. We’re also having talks with the hospital, to look at future funding after those first three years. It’s going to save each of those entities money in the long run if we can fix this problem up front.”

Melissia Larson, the LEAD coordinator with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy group that promotes initiatives like LEAD, said there are several avenues for additional funding that the program could pursue.

“The city or county may have funding they want to put forward,” she said. “The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition will also continue to seek foundation and nonprofit funding to help sustain those programs. We know that there’s a cost savings for the court and the jail but they’re certainly not going to write a check. We’re encouraging the MCO in the area to find out if they have funds they can set aside. We’ll also work with the law enforcement agency, city and county and to seek grant funding, and there may be some state and federal grant funding that the city or county could apply for.”

Hollingsed also suggested that the city and county could help sustain the LEAD program. Larson said public support is key to making that happen.

“If you have a chief or sheriff who comes before a city or county board to talk about the program, that community support is huge,” she said.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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