WILMINGTON — A 200-bed substance-abuse recovery center is slated to begin accepting clients in roughly a month after delays and years of contention surrounding the project.
The facility was slated to open this year in May, then the fall. The Healing Place of New Hanover County’s development director Megan Youssefi said the center will begin officially accepting clients Feb. 1 as long as finishing touches on construction go according to plan.
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Delays were caused by material shortages and the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on supply and demand. A delivery of kitchen equipment is expected next week and signage work is ongoing, but the facility is “almost there.”
“It’s been a slow crawl to get here, but we’re here now,” Youssefi said.
It also hasn’t been without its fair share of controversy.
The county board of commissioners adopted a strategic plan in 2018 to reduce opioid abuse in the county after Wilmington was tapped as a national hotspot in 2016. Trillium Health Resources, the local agency that manages mental health and recovery services across 26 counties, gave the county 8.71 acres on Medical Center Drive to build a facility.
Commissioners approved construction of the treatment center to the tune of $24 million. The county will maintain the building and fund 50 of the beds. The site includes a detoxification area, administrative building, dining area, and residential buildings.
The city later approved a special use permit to expand the scope of the project in 2019, adding 100 beds for women, in addition to the originally proposed 100 beds for men. At the time, Trillium executive vice president Cindy Ehlers said Coastal Horizons was the “selected provider.”
In 2020, commissioners also said they thought Trillium would look to Coastal Horizons to operate the center. However, in May of 2020 Trillium instead chose The Healing Place, a move commissioners approved that August.
The Healing Place faced criticism for not employing medication-assisted treatment (MAT), considered the gold standard for addiction recovery. It’s been touted by medical professionals and North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein.
Contention intensified earlier this year as a letter came to light, addressed to the county manager from Coastal Horizons director Margaret Weller-Stargell. She wrote to Chris Coudriet that then-commissioner chair Julia Olson-Boseman allegedly attempted to buy Coastal Horizons’ silence, with $50 million from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, to not speak out against the new provider. It was a move commissioner Jonathan Barfield described as a “bait and switch” on the part of Trillium overlooking Coastal Horizons.
Weller-Stargell previously told Port City Daily the chairwoman’s alleged offer was unsolicited. She also said she informed the county of the two meetings she had with Olson-Boseman, one with then-commissioner Pat Kusek in attendance and another with Coastal Horizons’ then- board chair Andy Jones.
Olson-Boseman vehemently denied the accusation and Coudriet admitted he had heard about the alleged meetings shortly after the time they supposedly took place in July 2020. Yet, Coudriet also said such an offer could not be made officially, as the entire board of commissioners would have to vote on it to give away hospital sale funds to a nonprofit.
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Olson-Boseman was integral to The Healing Place having a woman’s program, according to Youssefi.
The Healing Place development director wrote in an email Dec. 20 to assistant county manager Tufanna Bradley asking the former chairwoman have her name included on a plaque (Olson-Boseman did not win re-election after enduring a year of legal battles and questionable moves, such as removing a Cape Fear Community College trustee from the board despite not having the power to do so). The plaque will be presented during The Healing Place’s Jan. 17 invitation-only dedication.
“Because Julia Olson-Boseman was the chair and a huge champion for THPNC and especially fought to have a women’s program, we would like to show her our appreciation in an appropriate capacity,” Youssefi wrote. “I was thinking it’d be nice to dedicate the fountain to her. Or something similar.”
The Healing Place will offer an overnight shelter to people regardless of intoxication and separate residential programs for women and men to help clients work through addiction.
Youssefi confirmed the center still does not plan to offer MAT to clients — it also didn’t receive any of the county’s opioid settlement funds due to its abstinence-based program — but will not turn anyone away for receiving medication through another provider. However, The Healing Place can no longer legally turn away clients receiving MAT after an April 5 memo from the United States Department of Justice declared doing so would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We’re here to kind of break down barriers,” Youssefi said. “People that do need MAT, they can use MAT outside of our facility, as long as it does not conflict with their treatment here. We will not prescribe it, we will not administer it, we will not provide it, but we will not stop clients that would like to be treated at our facility that need MAT. Anyone is welcome here.”
The facility will accept anyone suffering from a substance abuse disorder, who is at least 18 years old and not a registered sex offender, at no cost. It will operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.
There are currently nine employees, with 15 more to come on board in the new year, including a physician and nurse practitioner. Eventually, The Healing Place will be staffed by about 50 people.
Modeled after a network of facilities, mainly The Healing Place based in Louisville, the program starts with a detox phase to prepare clients to enter the long-term program. After detox, clients move into a residential recovery program and start the two-week “Safe Haven” period. Clients begin attending classes and 12-step meetings.
Youssefi said the goal is for them to make it through the two weeks without using. If they relapse, they start over.
Clients go on to work with peers and learn principals “central to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics anonymous,” and “come to understand the concept of the physical allergy.”
They eventually move into the recovery stage with more classes, written assignments and assistance from peer mentors who recently completed the program. Work is put in on personal responsibility and interpersonal skills, as well as job training.
After completing the program, clients can choose to become volunteer peer mentors. Graduates may opt to live on the property after completing the program and finding work with no specific time limit.
The center plans to continue its care for those who complete the program. It will help with finding jobs, housing, obtaining medical treatment and or helping with legal troubles.
“I think that probably, when you’re talking about [the MAT] controversy, it was more just the perception that it’s a different route to go,” Youssefi said. “People have trouble believing [our program] can work, but it’s a tried-and-true system, and it works.”
The drug-free model at The Healing Place shows a 70% efficacy rate one year after the program is completed, though how effective it is long-term is unclear.
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