County OK’s funding for 25 beds in planned substance abuse, mental health treatment center

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The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

New Hanover County leaders took a step forward Tuesday to slow down future growth in the county jail by pledging nearly $1 million to fund 25 beds in a new recovery and treatment center for men with substance abuse and mental health issues. The 200-bed center will be built within the next two years at a location in the county that’s yet to be determined.

The partnership was proposed by Trillium Health Resources, a governmental agency that manages mental health, substance use and intellectually and developmental disability services in 24 eastern North Carolina counties. Trillium will cover the construction costs using their savings fund, while the program that eventually operates there will be run by Healing Transitions International. That organization operates a similar peer-run recovery and rehabilitation center in Wake County.

According to Trillium, more than 70 percent of people who graduate from the Wake County program remain clean and sober more than one year after graduation. Due to its success rate, which is five times higher than the national average for similar programs, it is being replicated in other parts of the state.

“The thing that we found the greatest need for was a long-term, residential type of facility, which does not exist anywhere in our 24-county region,” said Leza Wainwright, chief executive officer of Trillium, in a presentation to commissioners. “We’re working with them to bring two of their programs into our region, including in New Hanover County.”

The program is aimed at men who may be picked up for petty crimes such as loitering or trespassing but are found to have other issues. Instead of bringing them to jail or the emergency room, both of which are often over-crowded, law enforcement and emergency responders will have the option to bring them to the treatment center. Healing Transitions, unlike some other rehab and treatment centers, is a “wet shelter,” meaning they take people who are still under the influence.

“They will admit someone who is high or drunk,” said Wainwright, who said the maximum blood alcohol level they will accept is 0.39, well above the legal limit of .08 . “They don’t require people to be sober when they enter the facility.”

The treatment center will house 200 beds, 25 of which will be earmarked for New Hanover County residents. Though the county is not limited to just those beds, the county’s financial agreement guarantees county residents those spots. At an estimated cost of less than $35 a day per bed, the county will be paying $319,375 each year for three years beginning in the fiscal year 2017-2018, when the center is expected to become operational.

Though all commissioners and county staff agreed that a treatment center like Healing Transitions is necessary and beneficial to the community, the nearly $1 million cost over the three years of the agreement caused concern for Commissioner Woody White.

“While I support the facilities that Trillium supports … I’m just not entirely sure this fits in our general fund,” said White, who along with other commissioners asked if New Hanover Regional Medical Center had also been approached to contribute to the project. “Diversion from the emergency room is a tremendous help to the hospital. It’s right up in their wheelhouse to participate in something like this.”

Representatives from both Trillium and Healing Transitions said they are in talks with NHRMC to determine their level of participation in the project. The county was approached first, according to Wainwright, in deference to their position as the area’s government leaders.

County staff, including County Manager Chris Coudriet and Chief Strategy and Budget Officer Beth Schrader, emphasized that sponsoring the treatment center beds would save money in the long run, particularly in the area of law enforcement. According to Schrader, a night in jail in New Hanover County costs taxpayers $80 per bed, more than twice the cost of the facility. In addition, she estimated the cost of a new 500-bed jail, which the county is trying to hold off on building for as long as they can based on the population’s needs, is over $31.5 million.

“Our goal is to slow down the rate of growth in the jail. Ultimately, that cost will be paid for by the county,” said Coudriet, explaining why the commissioners were being asked to commit to a dollar amount before the treatment center was even built. “That’s why as county administration we feel it’s important to invest in this.”

While Healing Transitions facilities generally have “low bars” for their participants, the 25 beds New Hanover County is guaranteed will be more restrictive based on guidelines put together with the help of local judges. Schrader said candidates for the reserved beds would be screened for a history of methamphetamine use, affiliations to any gangs, or delinquency on child support payments, among other issues.

Since the center has yet to be built (Trillium owns land in the county and is trying to determine where best to place the center), the county has entered into an interim agreement with two local organizations to provide similar services to those currently in need. Ten beds for men will be sponsored at Coastal Horizons for a 180-day treatment cycle at a cost of $60,000 for that time period. At LINC, the county has agreed to sponsor two 90-day cycles with five beds each for a total cost of $24,300. While those agreements are temporary until the Trillium/Healing Transitions center can be built, the county may have the option to continue those partnerships in the future.

After a presentation and discussion that lasted over an hour and assurances that other agencies or organizations with a stake in the county’s substance abuse problem would be approached for resources, the board unanimously voted to approve the agreement.

“I’m ecstatic about their decision,” said Trillium CEO Wainwright. “Now we can move forward with our plans for building the facility.”

When White, a lawyer who previously stated that many of his clients would benefit from a successful local program like Healing Transitions, was asked afterward why he voted to approve the deal despite his initial reservations, he said the benefits ultimately outweighed the costs.

“I just wonder why they have to come to government first all the time when there are other entities and areas that will benefit from this,” said White. “But on the flip side, I understand the need for this in the community. I know fiscally it will save money in the long-term, and I think it will be a great asset and provide a needed service to the community.”

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