Regional partners tackle substance abuse

This story was written by Tanner Hall, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Officials with Vaya Health, previously Smoky Mountain Center, will form a regional partnership to reduce alcohol and drug misuse, such as prescription-drug addiction, and the number of fatal overdoses.

Vaya Health manages public funds for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services in 23 Western North Carolina counties.

The Asheville-based agency has offices in Sylva.

Called the WNC Substance Use Alliance, Vaya CEO Brian Ingraham said the goal is to increase collaboration among prevention and treatment experts. Ingraham said this is the first regional approach in North Carolina; however, there are many grassroots efforts spread across the state, he said.

The alliance hopes to make use of limited resources and prevent duplication of services, Ingraham said.

Heroin-related deaths in 2015 outnumbered gun homicides for the first time in the country’s history. Opioid addiction – including heroin, other illegal drugs and prescription-pain medication – has hit North Carolina’s mountain communities particularly hard.

In 2014, 17 of WNC’s 23 counties ranked among the top in the state for rates of fatal overdoses – more than 20 deaths for every 100,000 people. That group includes Jackson County, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate locally has almost doubled over the past decade.

Prescription drugs aren’t as much of a problem for Jackson County.

This community last year had one of the lowest prescription rates in the region, with an average of 68 opioid pills per person, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Still, statewide data shows that all but five WNC counties have higher-than-average rates of opioid prescription. Macon County had the most in 2014 with an average of 258 pills prescribed.

“Our region is experiencing an epidemic of opioid addiction, as well as misuse of other substances,” Ingraham said. “This alliance will allow us to build on each other’s efforts and make a greater impact as a team than we can acting separately.”

Ingraham will chair the alliance’s steering committee. Local representation will include Brian Bair, director of behavioral health for Duke LifePoint, owner of Harris Regional Hospital.

There will be four sub-committees, each with a different focus:

• Safe opioid prescribing and medication-assisted treatment, chaired by Dr. Blake Fagan of the Mountain Area Health Education Center.

• Women and prenatal substance use treatment, chaired by Leslie McCrory, substance use consultant for Vaya Health.

• Adult substance use treatment continuum and crisis services, chaired by Chad Husted of October Road Inc.

• Child and adolescent treatment continuum and prevention services, chaired by Danielle Arias of RHA Health and Services.

Ingraham said the next step will be to ask local organizations for their involvement. The first challenge will be to address the stigma associated with opioid addiction, he said.

Anyone living in WNC can call Vaya Health’s 24/7, toll-free care line at 1-800-849-6127 for information about behavioral health services or for help in crisis, Ingraham said.