County hears feedback on drug crisis response plan

VALATIE–“I didn’t know how bad it was,” Hudson Supervisor William Hughes Jr. (D-4th Ward) told the audience of more than 40 people gathered at the Martin H. Glynn Municipal Building last week to hear the county government plan for responding to heroin and opioid abuse.

From what members of the audience said when they got a chance to speak, many already knew a lot about the toll of drug abuse and the lack of local treatment facilities.

Mr. Hughes, the minority leader of the Board of Supervisors, said he had met with people in and outside of government knowledgeable about the rising number of deaths and non-fatal overdoses in the county. Based on what he learned, he and the leadership of the board put together a committee whose members include the district attorney, the sheriff, the heads of the county Human Services, Social Services and the Department of Health as well as the executive directors of Twin Counties Recovery Services and of Catholic Charities.

In April 2017 the Board of Supervisors accepted the committee’s bipartisan Opioid Epidemic Response Plan, a 19-page document that summarizes available services and offers four recommendations:

• Extend the life of the committee to “provide political and tactical support” for response efforts

• Establish a detoxification facility in the county and increasing residential treatment beds (currently there are no residential drug abuse treatment facilities in the county)

• Hire a coordinator to help “enhance education and prevention efforts”

• Expand the service called the Mobile Crisis Assessment Team.

Eight members of the committee and other county officials were at the Valatie gathering in the second of three community outreach efforts to educate the public about the response plan and to answer questions about it. The meeting, which lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours, began with each committee member explaining something about the role his or her agency.

Two years ago alcohol and marijuana were the top two drugs of choice among the population her agency serves, said Beth Schuster, executive director of Twin Counties Recovery Services. Now opiates have replaced both of them and the abuse of these drugs accounts for 65% of the caseload.

She urged the audience not to see relapses in drug use as a failure of the addicted person. “It’s a brain disease,” she said.

Rethinking the ways to view and respond to addition was a theme throughout the evening. District Attorney Paul Czajka, who restated his view that “we cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem,” introduced County Judge Jonathan Nichols in the audience, praising the judge for starting Drug Treatment Court in the county.

Sheriff David Bartlett expressed a similar view about arrests not being the answer to drug abuse. Instead he focused on his decision to press for the placement of school resource deputies in the county’s public schools, the DARE drug abuse awareness program and the training that deputies have in using naloxone (Narcan), an antidote for heroin and opioid overdoses.

In addition, Sheriff Bartlett said that his office offers Vivitrol, a drug that blocks the effects of addictive drugs, to drug-addicted inmates about to be released. Also, Twin Counties Recovery offers services at the jail.

Like the district attorney, who said he would continue to seek “harsh sentences” for drug dealers, the sheriff said his office has added a new narcotics investigator and had recently arrested a heroin dealer operating in Kinderhook. He asked that anyone who sees drug activity to contact his office at 518 822-TIPS (518 822-8477).

Jack Mabb, the director of the county Department of Health, said his agency’s top two priorities are substance abuse and obesity. With opioids, he said, one of the challenges is to “get a handle on the true number of overdoses we have.”

His department has an agreement to place drop-off kiosks for used syringes at the Hannaford supermarkets in Valatie and Livingston and a medication drop box at the Valatie Hannaford market, where people will be able to safely dispose of unused and unwanted opioid painkiller prescriptions. This allows individuals to remove drugs from a household where they might otherwise be abused by someone with an addiction.

Mr. Mabb has appointed a coordinator in the health department to work on drug abuse response efforts.

Among the audience members who addressed the forum was Dr. Carl D. Atkins, M.D., an oncologist by training and now medical director for The Community Hospice. He cited statistics about drug overdoses he had obtained that showed Columbia Memorial Hospital reported nine deaths from drug overdoses in 2015 and eleven deaths in 2016. So far this year there have already been 11 deaths.

He also said the hospital saw 60 overdoses in all of 2016; this year there were 60 overdoses in the first six months.

Dr. Atkins called the situation “horrendous” and said the committee should look the “metrics” that show which programs work in treating and preventing drug abuse. “The DARE program does not work,” he said.

He advised the county to address some of the factors that may increase the likelihood of drug addiction, among them child abuse and sexual abuse.

He then questioned why the committee did not invite Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann to the event to discuss his department’s Chatham Cares 4U. Based on a program begun in Massachusetts, the Chatham program encourages drug abusers seeking treatment to come to the Chatham Police Station at the Tracy Memorial Village Hall, where a police officer will find a treatment facility in the region that will accept the addicted person. The officer then drives that person to the facility.

So far the program has found treatment services for 148 addicted people in just over a year of operation.

Keith Stack, a former Kinderhook supervisor and the consultant hired by the county to coordinate the development of the committee’s plan, stepped into the discussion in his role as moderator, saying that this was moving the discussion in a “political” direction. Chief Volkmann is the Democratic candidate for sheriff in the November election; incumbent Sheriff Bartlett is the Republican candidate.

The county plan does describe Chatham Cares 4U.

Later in the forum the sheriff said that DARE has been updated and “is not the same program” it used to be. He said he doubted new data on the effectiveness of the program is available.

But the issue of where and when treatment is available continued to come up. Theresa Conte, a member of the five-year old non-profit Columbia Pathways to Recovery, had praise for the format of the forum but she told the committee that with drug abuse, “When a person needs help, help needs to be there… in the county.”

CPR operates a phone helpline 877-HOPE-365 (877 467-3365) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Chatham Cares 4 U can be reached through that number.

Michael Cole, the county Director of Human Services said Columbia county has “three-and-a-half slots of supported housing” for people in addiction recovery. Asked how the county could has a half a housing “slot,” Mr. Cole said that Columbia and Greene counties share a total of seven supported housing units. However you measure it, he said, there are “very, very few beds” available locally.

One woman who spoke about a family with member addicted to drugs and did not give her name said that for those who live in rural areas like Columbia County, “We’re worth less” than residents of urban areas, where more services are located.

Stockport Supervisor Matt Murell (R), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, closed the forum with an assurance that “we’re coordinating services across the spectrum” in an effort to address the crisis.

The next forum is scheduled for Tuesday evening September 26 at Copake Town Hall. A release from the county said that officials are planning for a fourth forum in Germantown, but a date has not yet been announced.

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