Saturday, January 28, 2023

Brunswick County allots $170K for social services clinician to address substance abuse

This is the first piece of opioid settlement funding used by Brunswick County. The funding is intended to spread out over 18 years. (Courtesy Brunswick County)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Brunswick County will hire its first mental health and substance abuse clinician as it starts to dip into $13.6 million in opioid settlement money.

During the Brunswick County Board of Commissioner’s Tuesday meeting, Brunswick County Department of Social Services’ Director, Cathy Lytch, requested a $169,703 allocation to hire a full-time clinician on a 1.5-year contract stretching through next June. The request was approved unanimously.

READ MORE: Elected officials push for solutions to ‘open-air drug markets’ in opioid settlement plan

The intention, outlined in the application for the opioid grant, would be for the county to continue funding the position into the foreseeable future.

$120,675 will cover the position’s salary, along with $43,803 for the benefit package. The remaining money will be used to purchase computers, a cellphone reimbursement and other equipment.

A report to the board from Lytch offered some insight into the request for the position, as opioids have become an increasing issue in the department’s caseload: Most of the 165 children in Brunswick County’s foster care system were placed due to opioid use in the home.

The clinician will make mental health and substance abuse assessments of clients, refer them for treatment and work with providers, as well as help place children with special needs in homes and provide crisis support. Lytch told the board her department’s current social workers are equipped for navigating the complex system, but they are not experts on the mental health system which encompasses opioid use treatment..

“So many of our families are involved in the mental health system, that having someone there who can take the lead on that and communicate with mental health agencies, do those assessments as we need them, would be a huge support to our social workers, as well as the families and the children,” Lych said.

The position will be hired within the next three months.

The county’s money comes from a $26-billion pot won in an agreement to settle thousands of lawsuits, paid by four pharmaceutical companies for their roles in creating the opioid crisis via manufacturing, promoting and distributing prescription drugs. Out of that money, $750 million went to North Carolina. Brunswick accepted the $13.6 million June 20.

The use of the money is governed by a memorandum of agreement created by North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. The MOA specifically reserves the funding to fight the opioid epidemic and offers two options for local boards:

  1. To fund a short list of evidence-based strategies
  2. Fund strategies after going through a lengthy planning process “involving a diverse array of stakeholders at the local level.”

Neighboring New Hanover County is opting for the more complicated method with committee meetings and grand talks about strategy, but the Brunswick commissioners moved ahead with the more simple option A at the same time it approved the new clinician job. Lytch said opting for option A means the county can move ahead and start using the funding for programs.

Under option A, Brunswick is free to allocate funds toward these strategies:

  • Evidenced-based addiction treatment
  • Recovery support services
  • Recovery housing
  • Employment-related services
  • Early intervention programs
  • Naloxone distribution
  • Post-overdose response teams
  • Syringe service programs
  • Criminal justice diversion programs
  • Addiction treatment for incarcerated persons
  • Reentry programs

Local governments can change between option A and B, because settlement funding will be spread out over the next 18 years, but they must wait a year before moving from one to the other.

Among his other recommendations were “safety net” funding to catch people who fall through the cracks when seeking treatment, post-overdose response teams and covering existing treatment infrastructure.

Lytch told Port City Daily the process her department followed to request settlement funding is the same any agency that follows. Money can be awarded to any entity, public or private, if it will fund strategies that fall under option A.

Applicants must specify if the grant will be a recurring expense or require the county to commit to including it in its budget after the grant runs out.

Coastal Horizons Vice President of Clinical Services Kenny House attended the meeting in a show of support for the move. The Wilmington-based nonprofit mental health and substance abuse organization operates a center in Shallotte. He also encouraged the board to spend its settlement funds on proven-effective methods.

“Prevention efforts are so important, not just in educating the public but reducing stigma,” House told commissioners. “I can tell you that when stigma decreases in a community, hope increases and people access services and engage at a greater rate.”

He also advocated treatment to include medication-assisted treatment.

“I know you’ve seen medications used in our community in ways that have not been helpful, but lets not throw the baby out with the bath water,” House said. “Medications, when used in the right and comprehensive way, get excellent results.”

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