A local clinic has received a federal grant of $379,000 to treat opioid addiction in the area.
The money was given as part of a federal push to expand health services for substance abuse, with a focus on populations that lack treatment.
High Country Community Health received the two year grant to fund a treatment program in collaboration with Stepping Stone of Boone.
“The epidemic of prescription pain medication and heroin deaths is devastating families and communities across the country,” President Barack Obama said in a presidential referendum.
Obama said opioid pain medications have been implicated in an increasing number of overdose deaths.
Alice Salthouse of HCCH said this problem has not spared North Carolina, taking more lives than traffic accidents in 2014.
“Unfortunately, many areas of the south, particularly Appalachia, are hard hit,” Salthouse said. “The federal government has made these grants, of which we are a recipient, available in order to not only combat this epidemic, but to provide the addicted patient with the primary health care they often sorely need.”
Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford said that at least five deaths out of the 12 investigated in 2015 were suspected to be caused by drug overdose.
HCCH receives funding through the Health Resources and Services Administration to offer medical services across Watauga and Ashe counties, regardless of insurance coverage.
The cost of treatment is scaled for the uninsured is according to income, also accepting Medicare and Medicaid as well as private insurance.
Salthouse said that HCCH did not previously offer services tailored to opioid addiction, a gap filled by collaborating with Stepping Stone.
“This grant will allow for the development of a strategic partnership with Stepping Stone of Boone,” Salthouse said. “Who have been on the front lines of this addiction epidemic for years and have the roots in our community to know what is needed.”
Christa Capua, clinical director of Stepping Stone, said the collaboration came about because Stacey Harris of HCCH caught wind of the grant opportunity and felt the two organizations could work well together.
That blossomed into a relationship that both sides agreed would continue with or without the grant.
Capua said the partnership also opens the door for more comprehensive care for those who might not otherwise receive it.
“So, if a patient has an infection at an injection site, or would like to talk about treatment options for hepatitis C,” Capua said. “They can come here knowing we will help them in a safe, supportive environment.”
Salthouse said that Medicaid is the only option for those unable to afford treatment for opioid addiction, a problem exacerbated by the fact that many providers are unable to accept Medicaid.
This leaves people without Medicaid paying for treatment out of pocket. Salthouse said this creates a barrier that allows the problem to get worse than it would if early treatment was available.
“Additionally, there is so much stigma and bias surrounding addiction,” Salthouse said. “I think often times people, no matter what their financial situation, are afraid to seek help for fear of being judged harshly by friends, family and the community.”
Capua said that Stepping Stone aims to destigmatize addiction by viewing it as a disease, focusing on the patient’s health rather than just their addiction.
A big part of that effort is education, getting people to understand that prescription opioids are dangerous and habit forming.
Salthouse said that four out of five heroin users first got hooked on prescription painkillers.
Capua said there are encouraging steps being taken to respond to the issue locally, stressing the importance of dealing with addiction openly rather than hiding from it and allowing it to spread.
Story by Sammy Hanf, News Reporter