Friday, September 30, 2022

County denies involvement with board chair’s alleged $50M hush money offer to Coastal Horizons

Coastal Horizons CEO Margaret Weller-Stargell speaks at the nonprofit in May during a visit from Attorney General Josh Stein. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A lack of transparency, an unsolicited offer and a slap in the face to a well-established, reputable organization surround the deal made for the county’s under-construction substance treatment facility, The Healing Place, according to Coastal Horizons CEO and president Margaret Weller-Stargell. 

Weller-Stargell sent a letter to New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet and the board of commissioners Aug. 25 asking how the county plans to “rectify these most egregious actions,” claiming the county commissioner chair suggested hush money to the nonprofit during a July 2020 meeting. 

READ MORE: County, city committee to pen spending plan for $19.5M opioid settlement funds

Julia Olson-Boseman allegedly offered the nonprofit $50 million from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center two days before the NHRMC signed off on Novant as the recommended buyer. According to previous PCD reporting, on July 8, 2020, commissioners already had discussed where the hospital sale money would be allotted and planned to set aside a $50-million pot to be used for mental and behavioral health services.

Weller-Stargell said she informed county officials multiple times about the offer, though the county denies knowing or being involved in any of the discussions.

The funds, Weller-Stargell said, were suggested “in perpetuity” to Coastal Horizons as long as she did not push back on the county’s provider being The Healing Place. The peer-run substance treatment program, founded in Louisville, Kentucky, was to be the operator of the new 200-bed facility on Medical Center Drive.

Coastal Horizons, having served Wilmington since 1970, was under the impression it was going to oversee the facility. Both the county and Trillium Health Resources expressed interest in the local nonprofit publicly.

Yet, the tables turned. County commissioners voted 4-1 (Jonathan Barfield dissenting) to move forward with The Healing Place.

READ MORE: Trillium takes flack but Healing Place deal moves forward after Coastal Horizons gets iced out

Trillium — which holds the state Local Management Entities/Managed Care Organizations contract and decides what resources are needed by identifying gaps in service in 26 counties in the eastern part of the state — donated 8.7 acres and pushed for the social recovery model. Former CEO Leza Wainwright wrote to commissioners then that it would renege its land donation if they voted “to overrule the decision of operator made by Trillium.”

Weller-Stargell has spoken often and publicly about her disapproval of the process since 2020, noting disappointment and a sense of “betrayal” for the patients Coastal Horizons serves and the community at large. The nonprofit was integral to helping Trillium get its special use permit, as nearby neighbors were against its addition to the area.

READ MORE: Rock and a hard place: Getting to the bottom of concerns over The Healing Place treatment center

“We have never wavered in continuing to express our concerns, and I provide this information as further evidence of the ongoing manipulation and wrongdoing Coastal Horizons was subjected to in this process,” Weller-Stargell detailed in the letter.

Olson-Boseman’s claimed offer adds a new layer to the story — one the chair vehemently denies.

“It’s a damn lie,” Olson-Boseman wrote to PCD. “Margaret’s only concern is money. She’s an embarrassment to the recovery community of which I am part of. Ever since Trillium picked The Healing Place, Margaret’s sister Frances has become obsessed with me and uses her role at WECT to continue to attack me. Not one positive story in two years.”

(Frances Weller is lead anchor at WECT. The outlet first broke the story in collaboration with WHQR on Monday, both of which are media partners of PCD. However, Weller was not the reporter or involved in the piece.)

Olson-Boseman also expressed support of the abstinence-based approach The Healing Place takes, based on personal experience.

“I am grateful that I went to a treatment center that didn’t try to get me addicted to another drug,” she wrote.

The county, in conjunction with Trillium, went with The Healing Place for its social recovery model, based on non-medical detox, as opposed to Coastal Horizons’ medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Weller-Stargell said MAT is considered the “gold standard” for opioid addiction. During a May tour of Coastal Horizons, Attorney General Josh Stein added it is the preferred treatment plan for physicians across the nation.

“We offer a number of different modalities and options,” Weller-Stargell said. “In doing so, MAT is part of that.”

Barfield has been vocal about the county “switching forces” and backing The Healing Place over Coastal Horizons. “We should have stuck with Coastal Horizons,” he told PCD in May. “I’m hoping the investment we’re making will pay off. Only time will tell.”

This is not the first time Weller-Stargell said she brought the Olson-Boseman claim to the attention of county officials. While she said she found the chairwoman’s solicitation — in two different meetings — to be “unethical,” she said she would not call it “bribery.”

“I talked to [the county] in 2020 and spoke with them about the fact that this offer was made,” Weller-Stargell said. 

Other board of commissioners serving at the time included Rob Zapple, Jonathan Barfield, Woody White, and Pat Kusek, the latter of whom was allegedly present during one meeting when Weller-Stargell claimed the chair offered money to Coastal Horizons. 

Kusek and White did not respond to Port City Daily’s request for comment. Commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield both said they were unaware of the deal.

“If Julia made such a statement,” Zapple wrote to PCD, “she did so without having the authority to make such an offer and without informing our county staff.”

However, Stargell-Weller said she even reminded the county recently about the exchange.

“Not that long ago, I met with county staff and talked about my concerns with how the whole process has been peppered with challenges and reminded them again I was offered $50 million from the sale of the hospital that hadn’t even been sold,” she said, adding that their feedback was largely silent.

“There were never conversations that county staff was a part of around giving money directly to Coastal Horizons,” Coudriet wrote in a statement to PCD. “Any decision to provide funding to another entity would have to be thoroughly vetted, discussed, and then approved by the board of commissioners.”

Weller-Stargell said another concern with the $50-million offer was it would exclude other providers that would be eligible for the funding. 

“And it would be unethical to have accepted that on the terms being put forth,” she said to PCD.

New information recently came to light that furthered Weller-Stargell’s emotions about the ordeal. On Aug. 19 The Healing Place of New Hanover County’s executive director Brian Mingia and special projects director Maurice Ludwick met with Weller-Stargell — at their request, she said — to see how Coastal Horizons could collaborate with the facility. She said she asked bluntly: “So will you allow for MAT?”

“They said, ‘yes,’” she told PCD (The Healing Place didn’t respond to PCD’s request for comment by press). “And I asked, ‘What brought you to that decision because you were very clear two years ago you would not?’”

She said the response was they had listened to the concerns of elected officials and the community.

“But you didn’t want to listen to concerns of the treatment provider who knows the community?” Weller-Stargell responded.

In reality, recently updated guidance from the federal government triggered the facility to reevaluate its guidelines of service.

On April 5, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that refusing access to treatment for individuals participating in medication-assisted treatment is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Healing Place is now legally obligated to accept patients receiving MAT. 

In a letter sent to the county from Mingia, obtained by PCD, it stated the facility “will not prescribe, provide or administer these medications.”

Based on correspondence between Coudriet and Trillium leadership, sent to PCD, The Healing Place’s model has not changed and it will remain an abstinence-based treatment facility. 

“We understand that there is no one way or one method of treatment that is right for everyone, so having different options and services to help our residents is imperative,” Coudriet said in a statement to PCD.

Advocating for the residents who need MAT is Weller-Stargell’s main goal for sending the correspondence to the county and speaking publicly about it now, she said.

“While the county will say it was solely Trillium’s decision to go with The Healing Place, that is not fact,” Weller-Stargell said. “The fact is, the county had the option to walk away from the 8.7-acre tract of land and build its own facility on county-owned property, inclusive of all treatment modalities.”

Once opened, The Healing Place will provide free services to under and uninsured individuals living with drug and alcohol addictions. It will feature an overnight emergency shelter, non-medical detoxification and a long-term, 12-steps residential peer-run recovery program.

According to county spokesperson Jessica Loeper, The Healing Place should have its certificate of occupancy by December to begin offering services by early 2023.

Weller-Stargell wants to know what role Coastal Horizons will have in the active process of treatment of individuals. 

“I’m trying to ensure we’re providing the best services needed for our community and not just because it’s money that’s available and it’s out there,” she said, adding it’s “laughable and mostly disturbing” that Olson-Boseman said she was “all about the money.”

The county will spend $24 million to construct the five-building facility, which will then be owned by New Hanover. Loeper confirmed none of the roughly $19.5 million received from opioid settlements from major pharmaceutical companies, would be used toward The Healing Place. MAT is considered the type of “evidence-based” treatment the settlement money is supposed to be used toward.

Barfield is helping lead the charge on a 20-member committee, including representatives from Coastal Horizons, LINC, Cape Fear Council of Governments, the fire department and others, to plan the use of the opioid settlement funds. He said it should be presented to commissioners at their next meeting, Sept. 6. 


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