Opioid crisis spurs plan to reduce addiction

HUDSON–Columbia County is working on a countywide plan to respond to local opioid abuse.

“Opioids” include heroin, some prescription pain killers and other opium products. In recent years, opioid abuse has grown to the point that officials recognize it as a nationwide problem. A few weeks ago Supervisor Matt Murrell (R-Stockport), chairman of the County’s Board of Supervisors, included confronting this problem “pro-actively” as one of his 2017 goals. He formed a committee to develop a response plan, tapped county Director of Community Services Michael Cole, a licensed clinical social worker, to lead the task of drafting the plan and directed the committee meet January 26 to discuss it.

Four themes that ran through the January 26 meeting included the current situation, the significance of Columbia County’s rural character, the advantages of partnering with Greene County, and the advisability of working with the many organizations already dealing with the problem.

The state Department of Health reported that in 2014 “opioid overdoses” contributed to 11 deaths and 46 outpatient emergency department visits in Columbia and Greene Counties together. Because numbers are small and these data are for only one year, the exact scope of the problem is subject to change. But several local officials believe opioid abuse has increased in recent years.

“We’ve been watching the crisis grow,” said Jack Mabb, county Director of Public Health.

Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett said by phone last November, “Probably 85% of my jail population is addicted to something.” He said that many of the people in the jail who are addicted tell him that they started with pills, often prescription drugs. But, he added, “When they ran out of these pills, they switched to heroin, because it was cheaper.”

Columbia County’s Stop DWI Coordinator, Reginald Crowley, said at January 26 meeting that, in places that limit how much of an opiate medication doctors can prescribe for their human patients, veterinarians report that “people intentionally hurt their pets” to get pain killer prescriptions.

“We have that here too,” said Mr. Cole, whose agency is part of the county Department of Human Services.

Department of Social Services Counsel Robert Gibson observed, “We’re not growing opiates in Columbia County.”

Columbia County is rural, with pockets where poverty rates are high. There are also long distances from most locations to public transportation and healthcare providers, meeting participants said. For such a place, they saw no precedent for ways to reduce opioid abuse.

“If you’re in an urban area, you can look at what other urban areas are doing,” said Mr. Cole. But said that “there’s nothing to replicate” here.

“We aren’t used to this in rural counties, said Supervisor William Hughes (D-Hudson, 4th Ward). “There are plenty of programs downstate,” he said, noting that most state legislature live in the New York metropolitan area and adding, “But there are no programs upstate.”

Advantages of partnering with Greene County include more resources and visibility for both counties. “We need to get together with Greene County,” said Mr. Mabb.

Mr. Hughes agreed, saying, “If Columbia and Greene counties develop a model in conjunction with each other, maybe we can be a critical mass, and the legislators will take notice.”

“Our facilities have Columbia and Greene County clients together, but they have different departments of social services,” said Beth Schuster, Director of Twin County Recovery Services (TCRS).

“Better if we can have a bi-county solution rather than solving it separately,” said Mr. Hughes. “We must stop seeing the Rip Van Winkle Bridge as a barrier.”

“Managed care doesn’t care about the river,” said Mr. Cole. “Opioid addiction is very expensive for managed care.”

Several local organizations are already working on the opioid problem. Claire Parde, director of Columbia-Greene Health Care Consortium, recommended “working with what we have” in a “hub and spoke model.” This, she said, could be better than “trying to take over some groups” or “creating something new.” The different organizations “all have a different focus, a different flavor, some serve different geographic areas or different audiences. They don’t duplicate each other, they complement each other.”

On the other hand, she said, they are “islands to themselves, with little pollination.”

“They’re doing it piecemeal,” said Mr. Hughes.

To get a better handle on what services each of the groups provides and what populations they serve, and to expose gaps that need filling, Ms. Parde raised the idea of creating a website “that serves as a repository involving all the groups.” Additional suggestions include a calendar of what all groups are doing and shared speakers.

Groups and programs working on the opioid problem include the Columbia-Greene Controlled Substance Awareness Task Force, Columbia Pathways to Recovery, Prevention-Awareness-Solutions (for Greene County), and Young People in Recovery (nationwide but with a Hudson chapter). Additional groups whose work includes the opioid problem include TCRS, Catholic Charities, and sheriffs’ offices, which run Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) in both counties.

Columbia County has two certified DARE instructors who teach 5th graders a couple days a week for an entire half year. Sheriff Bartlett said last November that he is proud of the program, which covers five of Columbia County’s six school districts. The sixth district, Hudson, receives the program through the Hudson Police Department. The sheriff also said that inmate services coordinators help inmates kick drug habits in jail, and TCRS helps former inmates stay off drugs when they are released.

Preparing the response plan includes charting needed services—from prevention to medically-supervised withdrawal, to recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration—indicating service providers and their locations.

As for support, “States like to fund winners,” Mr. Murrell said at the January meeting.

“We need to have a legislative affairs working group,” Ms. Parde said.

“We need a document to sell to the taxpayers,” Mr. Hughes said.

Mr. Murrell requested waiting to release the plan until the committee gets more input, including from Greene County. Meanwhile, the committee will continue to meet and develop the response plan.

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