By Ivey Schofield
Bladen and Columbus counties will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to secure spots for local residents at a drug-treatment center in Wilmington.
A total of 17 beds, five for Bladen and 12 for Columbus, are now reserved at The Healing Place of New Hanover County, a $24 million, 200-bed facility that opened this month.
Columbus County Manager Eddie Madden called the facility and its peer-led residential program with 12-step classes “a game changer” for people who struggle with drug addiction. The organization does not accept insurance, and its services for free to participants.
Southeastern North Carolina struggles with illegal drug use. In 2016, a report by health care consulting firm Castlight Health ranked Wilmington No. 1 in the country for opioid misuse.
Since then, the opioid prescription rate across the region has dropped, but not the overdose death rate. Many people dealing with addiction have turned to fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin.
In 2021, 76.4 per 100,000 Bladen County residents and 66.7 per 100,000 Columbus County residents died of overdoses, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s compared to the statewide average of 38.5 per 100,000 residents.
Last year saw record-high numbers of overdose deaths across the state as the coronavirus pandemic continued, according to preliminary data from the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office.
“There’s such a need,” said Bladen County Manager Greg Martin.
There is no detox facility in Bladen and Columbus counties, and many treatment programs accept a limited number of individuals who have already detoxed.
Now, officials hope The Healing Place of New Hanover County, which is currently pursuing its detox license, will fill a gap in addiction services.
Bladen and Columbus counties will pay for the service from funds it will receive from the $26 billion opioid lawsuit settlement, which will bring more than $750 million to North Carolina over 18 years.
Bladen County will spend almost $120,500 per year of the $2.76 million it will receive, and Columbus County will spend about $289,000 per year of its $7.86 million.
“Access to affordable substance abuse treatment has been a limiting factor,” Madden said. “We can now meet the needs of those that are seeking treatment.”
‘No magic formula’
Using grant money from the Kate B. Reynolds Foundation, Bladen and Columbus counties hired Addiction Consulting & Training Associates in Chapel Hill to assess each county’s needs. (The KBR Foundation funds the Border Belt Independent.)
Bladen’s assessment in 2018 led to a $1 million grant from the federal Human Resources & Services Administration in 2021 to implement a school prevention program and hire licensed addiction counselors.
So far, the county has conducted 1,000 addiction screening tests, taught 75 sixth-graders about drug prevention and hired a resource coordinator to train the community in the administration of naloxone, said Trisha Blackmon, county project manager for the grant.
“The work that we have done has been pretty amazing in the length of time that we’ve had, but that doesn’t mean we can stop here and rest on those laurels,” said Terri Duncan, director of Bladen County Health and Human Services. “The Healing Place is just a continuation of efforts.”
Like Bladen, Columbus County commissioners also earmarked opioid money for a substance use resource coordinator, a data tracker and prevention curriculum at local schools.
In Columbus County, surveys and focus groups showed that many residents didn’t know where to get help for addiction and that Columbus Regional’s emergency department in Whiteville was overrun with people who were misusing drugs, said Syd Wiford, principal consultant for ACT.
In 2020, Columbus County saw 214 overdose-related emergency department visits per 100,000 residents, compared to the statewide rate of 142 visits per 100,000 residents, data shows.
A hospital visit costs an average of $1,500, according to Trillium, the health care management entity for Bladen and Columbus. Treatment at The Healing Place costs less than $45 per day, according to Trillium.
Participants of The Healing Place program will go through 80 classes and 12-step meetings centered on learning about the disease and “its spiritual solution,” the organization’s website states. The self-paced program can last up to a year.
The Healing Place, which is based in Kentucky and has 17 other locations, including one in Raleigh, did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Wiford said she expects half of the people who enter The Healing Place will leave the program prematurely. But the facility has an open admissions policy, accepting people back an unlimited number of times.
“Addiction is a terrible dilemma, and it is not easy to come back from,” Wiford said. “Something has to click. There is no magic formula.”
More than 70% of graduates from The Healing Place are sober, employed and in stable housing one year after graduation, according to Trillium.
Bladen and Columbus counties are also working with The Healing Place to institute local meetings and Oxford Houses, so people who recover at the facility have continuing after-care support. The Healing Place will provide transportation to and from the facility for those who need it.
Officials hope participants return to their home counties after the program.
Both counties will monitor the usage of their reserved beds in the next year to see if they need to purchase more to meet the needs of their communities.
“Funds are always limited,” Wiford said. “We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Individuals interested in getting treatment at The Healing Place can call 910-874-6098 in Bladen County and 910-640-8872 in Columbus County.