County commissioners approve initial plan for opioid settlement funds

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Rowan County, like all 100 counties and 17 municipalities in the state, will receive settlement funds from a lawsuit against four companies that found those businesses at least partially to blame for the country’s current opioid addiction crisis.

The county will receive about $15 million over the next 15-17 years, but the payments are “front loaded,” according to Rowan County Health Director Alissa Harris.

“This is near and dear to my heart,” said Harris, speaking to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners Monday night. “Like many Rowan County residents, my family has been touched, had a loved one lost to opioid use and abuse. This is an enormous responsibility, but what a tremendous opportunity we have to make a change in our community to make a change with these funds.”

Harris outlined the plan for the use of the money at the meeting since the board was voting on a resolution to accept the funds and allow them to be used.

“Until you vote to approve, we cannot spend any of the funds,” Harris added. The board voted unanimously to approve the plan she laid out, but she was also clear to say “we need to be flexible, to have ongoing reviews, so that if we see what we are doing is not working, we can make a change.” She noted that the court decision comes with certain requirements as well.

Included in requirements are items like collaborative strategic planning, early intervention, Naloxone distribution, addiction treatment for incarcerated people, and re-entry programs, to name a few.

Harris showed board members where Rowan County currently stands statistically in comparison with the state’s overall numbers. While some categories are on par with the state, some outpace the state. In some cases, drastically. The number of overdose deaths in Rowan are nearly double the state levels, and the number of Naloxone reversals, cases in which Naloxone was administered and saved a life, are ten times the state number.

In addition, 9.5 percent of babies born in Rowan County are born addicted to drugs, whereas the state percentage is between three and four percent. And 50 percent of children in foster care are there because of parental substance abuse.

“I guarantee you if you talk with the Department of Social Services, they’ll say it’s much higher than even that,” said Harris.

In the first year, the county will receive more than $1.8 million, and the plan is to use less than half of that for staffing and projects, including a substance and mental health program manager, a harm reduction coordinator, two peer support specialists, and a community paramedic, each of which indicates the projects they will lead. In the second year, the county will again receive more than $1 million and a prevention specialist and attached programming will be added. In year three, the $1.2 million will allow for the addition of a second community paramedic and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and their work to the program.

Harris said community involvement is essential “because the community is so impacted by addiction and all that comes with it. And transparency and accountability is essential, because we do not want to get to the end of 17 years and have nothing to show for what we have done.”

“I hope we’ll be bold enough in bureaucracy that we are not too arrogant to admit if something is not working,” agreed Chairman Greg Edds.