By Erin Weeks
In an ongoing effort to combat the opioid epidemic, Cabarrus County landed a prestigious opportunity to work with the UNC School of Government and select other communities across the state, collaborating on innovative approaches through a joint program over the next two years.
The School of Government, based out of UNC-Chapel Hill, partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina to choose 10 communities out of almost 40 applicants to be a part of the program. The chosen teams will receive $20,000 split over the two-year period and will participate in a series of webinars and forums to learn from experts, collaborate with each other and work to implement best practices.
“They’re a huge resource on all sort of government,” County Manager Mike Downs said of the School of Government. “The 10, whether they’re big, small or very, very large, we want to be part of that process and learn from both sides. We’ve got the issues here. All the way from the creation of the mental health advisory board, and then we started seeing the rise of the opioid issues here. It’s just a natural step for us to continue to try to learn more and try to be able to address some of these issues here locally.
“We’re excited. A lot of good stuff going on. We’re really excited we got selected.”
Downs originally heard of the opportunity at a conference and approached School of Government representatives afterwards to express interest. The county pulled together an application and became one 10 teams selected. Cabarrus County applied jointly with the cities of Concord and Kannapolis.
“I think seeing what’s happening with our law enforcement and even within our schools and with students and families being impacted by opiates, I think [Downs], along with the other county commissioners, had a huge passion to see what else could Cabarrus County be doing,” said Marcella Beam with Cabarrus Health Alliance and project leader for the local team.
The county jumped on the opportunity largely due to the shocking numbers. In July and August of last year, Cabarrus County led the state in per capita emergency department admissions for prescription opioid or heroin overdoses. The county hovered in the top five for the rest of 2017 and then again in February 2018.
In 2016, the number of opioid-related deaths in the county jumped to 40 from just two in 1999 and 17 in 2015.
“Opioids have had profound effects on our families, economy, services, staff and our lives,” the county wrote in its application. “No more.”
Cabarrus County has a core team of four members who will head the program. Emergency Services Assistant Director Justin Brines, Cabarrus County Communications and Outreach Manager Kasia Thompson and Concord Police Maj. Keith Eury will join Beam in monthly webinars with School of Government mentors. A larger group will gather five times throughout the two years, meeting with the other nine teams, as well, for broader discussions.
“The end goal is they’re going to work with each community specifically to come up with what is the most feasible solution for that community because there could be something that we’re already doing here in Cabarrus that we’ve seen being successful,” she said. “We have a syringe exchange program. We have community paramedics that are providing additional support, so that could be a strategy that maybe another community would need to do, but because we’re already doing it, we’ve got to come up with what fits us.”
One big advantage to the setup of this program, Beam said, was that it allowed the teams to design their approach as they go along instead of on the front end, taking time to design an implementation strategy.
“A lot of times you have to write your plan for the grant before you’re able to get everyone to the table because there may be a funding source may be open for a couple weeks, and you’ve got to apply,” she said. “So you’ve got to come up with something that fits those expectations and then also the needs of the community. And this is really going to allow us to take the time and look at the numbers.”
Downs also said he hopes the process would help the county hone some best practices with fresh ideas to battle the opioid crisis.
“I think it’s going to help us tremendously because it’s evolving so fast and the impact is so scary,” he said. “Any time we can get ideas from other communities that have already tested, tried and true these things that are working, let’s bring them back here. You have to tweak them to make them work for the local area here, but just the ability to leverage the resources of these other nine communities but moreso the School of Government and their far reach to other universities and communities.”