Rowan lawmakers say they weren’t aware of interest in local mental health, substance abuse funding

Published 12:10 am Sunday, December 5, 2021

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A lack of communication and clerical errors are to blame for concerns about mental health and substance abuse projects tied to Rowan County in the state budget, lawmakers say.

Included in the 2021-23 state budget, the first signed into law in three years, is $1 million for Gateway of Hope Addiction Recovery Center and $1.5 million for Will’s Place, which are both in Stanly County. Additionally, $5 million is earmarked for Healing Transitions for a new recovery center and beds. Healing Transitions is located in Raleigh.

While the funding for all three was listed as coming to Rowan County, State Sen. Carl Ford said that was a mistake.

Meanwhile, the Rowan County United Way, in conjunction with Rowan Helping Ministries and S&H Youth and Adult Services, already is working to establish a detox and crisis center to serve people struggling with mental and substance abuse disorders. The organizations are also working toward expanding RHM’s transitional housing. During a city council meeting last month, United Way Executive Director Jenny Lee credited the project with being a “unique and first-time cross-sectoral collaborative.”

“It is crucial to acknowledge that recovery is a lifelong journey and individuals require continued substance use and mental health services to maintain their housing,” Lee said during the meeting. “And that’s what this partnership creates.”

During that meeting, LaTanya Hardy of S&H Youth and Adult Services said 54% of the roughly 500 people Rowan Helping Ministries helped in the previous 12 months self-identified themselves as struggling with mental and substance abuse disorders. Additionally, the 76 homeless patients the clinic has served in the last 10 months had a seven-day stay for treatment on average.

County Commissioner Judy Klusman has been involved in the project and said it was “shocking” that no money for locally based mental health or substance abuse projects was earmarked by local lawmakers.

Klusman said she was disappointed that there was no heads-up or contact from lawmakers about the money slated for Rowan County. A former Wisconsin state legislator, Klusman said she often spoke with leaders in her district about their needs.

“I’m very disappointed,” Klusman said. “We need a crisis center in this county.”

Klusman said currently substance abuse or mental health patients, who often have dual-diagnoses, only have the emergency room or the jail to receive medical services for those conditions. And with opioid abuse rates on the rise during the pandemic, the need for a treatment facility is even more essential, she added.

In 2020 alone, North Carolina reported eight people died per day to drug overdose. In Rowan County, 777 overdoses were reported in 2020 and 647 overdoses so far this year.

Included in the state budget budget is $250,000 for Rowan Helping Ministries, but its description was simply “homeless shelter.”

Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican representing a swath of Rowan County, said his office is always receptive to needs for funding or assistance. But in this case, Warren said he “heard nothing” about the need for funding for mental health or substance abuse funding.

“If you don’t reach out, we can’t possibly know every organization that may need assistance,” Warren said.

Ford, a Republican representing Rowan and Stanly counties, said he was not familiar with such initiatives or Rowan County’s need for more funding to address mental health and substance abuse issues.

“You can’t get money if you don’t ask for it,” Ford said.

Ford said he worked closely with Rep. Wayne Sasser to secure funding for the three facilities.

Sasser, a Republican who represents parts of Rowan, Cabarrus and Stanly counties, helped secure the $5 million in funding for Healing Transitions. The lone pharmacist in the General Assembly, Sasser said he had discussions about the funding request since he also chairs the House Health Committee. Therefore, not all the health-related funding he helped secure is earmarked for his district only.

Sasser said he and Rep. Kristin Baker, a Republican physician representing Cabarrus County, worked to secure $30 million for a regional health facility in Kannapolis at the former site of a Cardinal Innovations branch. That facility will serve the region, which includes Rowan, Cabarrus, Stanly and Union counties.

Like Ford and Warren, Sasser said no one contacted him directly to discuss mental health or substance abuse funding for Rowan County.

However, Sasser said there’s still millions more dollars to come. He’s been heavily involved in focusing on the state’s opioid crisis, and as House Health Committee chair, has been preparing for the $750 million in funds slated for North Carolina from a multi-state opioid settlement agreement. That settlement is the result of years of negotiations with opioid distributors and manufacturers for their alleged roles in fueling the opioid crisis. Up to 85% of those funds will be earmarked for local governments in North Carolina, Sasser said, while state lawmakers will determine how best to appropriate approximately 15% of the funds for treatment centers. And unlike the tobacco settlement reached more than 20 years ago, Sasser said the funds will have specific uses relevant to mitigating the opioid crisis.

“Without question, there’s still money coming to every county,” Sasser said.

Rowan County Commissioner Greg Edds said the Board of Commissioners is supportive of endeavors to work toward mitigating substance abuse and mental health issues, but “we don’t exactly know what’s needed until it’s presented.”

Nonetheless, the county is “heavily engaged” in the multi-state opioid settlement agreement, he said, in addition to other requests that come before the board. He added that Monday’s agenda for the commissioners meeting is a request from Rowan County’s Post Overdose Response Team, or PORT, for additional funding as their budget expire this month. PORT is requesting $240,390 to continue its services for an additional year.

PORT reported that 74% of all overdoses in Rowan County are from opioids. Additionally, 28 known suicides or suicide attempts occurred in September, which indicates mental health issues and/or some form of substance use/abuse.

Also included in the state budget is $200,000 across two fiscal years for the N.C. Dental Society Foundation to support the Missions of Mercy dental clinics. Those clinics provide free dental services to those in financial need, with local clinics hosted by the Community Care Clinic of Rowan.

Rowan County’s lawmakers also secured $500,000 for county government, but allocation of those funds has not yet been determined, Edds said. The Rowan County Health Department will receive $210,663 to fund the communicable diseases program. Rowan County Health Director Alyssa Harris told the Post the county is currently operating with one communicable diseases nurse, and the funds would add additional staff members. She compared Rowan to Cabarrus, which sees similar amounts of infections but has four staff members in its communicable diseases program.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.