Three counties, one project: Region works to address opioid issues

Published 8:09 am Tuesday, December 12, 2023

It’s one thing to cut down on opioid prescriptions. We’ve seen that happen over the last few years in Prince Edward, Buckingham and Cumberland counties. But that doesn’t remove the damage already done by prescriptions given in the past. To help address the problem, the three counties have joined together for a multi-faceted project. 

Part of that involves creating a drug court. Currently if someone gets arrested for substance use, they go to jail. Drug court instead offers them opportunities to attend classes or counseling, so they can change their behaviors. Now to be clear, this gives the opportunity, but it’s still up to the individual to take advantage. If they follow the guidelines set up, they stay out of jail. If they don’t comply, however, then that opportunity goes away and it’s back behind bars. 

Does it help? Data collected in other areas says yes. The project provides access to critical care, while also cutting down on repeat offenders. Data from the National Institute of Justice shows recidivism, or repeat arrest, rates fall between 17 to 28% in areas with a drug court. But that’s also not something you can just snap your fingers and decide to do. The Virginia Supreme Court has to agree to it. 

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Also, you have to set up partnerships, in order to make the drug court work and develop a funding plan. That requires local government support, grant writing, community engagement, and coordination and development of all needed resources. And it requires all three counties to take a hard look at their current infrastructure. 

 

Do we have what we need? 

What happens to current addicts in the three counties? That’s where the infrastructure question comes in. Do we have the right tools in place to help current addicts? Are they easily accessible by everyone? Do we have enough doctors, counselors and others to staff these operations? In order to make the drug court and other options work, Prince Edward, Cumberland and Buckingham want to do an analysis of treatment options, services and infrastructure for people affected by not just opioids but all substance abuse disorders. 

The Virginia Opioid Abatement Authority agreed to help with the idea this month, giving the three counties a combined $50,000 in planning grant funds. 

“A planning grant helps us with determining needs and, based on those needs, helps us find additional funds,” Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said. 

The goal is to identify and prioritize immediate and future community needs through a comprehensive plan. Then find the money to fund those needs. Part of the funding will come from the opioid settlements. 

 Virginia expects to receive a total of approximately $1.1 billion from litigation against manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies that were alleged to have contributed to the opioid crisis. Payments from these settlements and bankruptcies began in 2022 and are expected to conclude by 2041.

Out of that, 30% is distributed directly to cities and counties, and the remaining 15% to the Commonwealth. The three counties can use their own portion of the settlement for part of the funding, with the rest coming from grants. 

 

What do the numbers say? 

But just how bad is the problem in this region? Well, it’s not as simple as that question seems. As of 2020, the latest data we have, an average of 43.3 opioid prescriptions were given out per each 100 people in the U.S. All of The Herald’s coverage area is dramatically below that figure and you can see a continuing drop with each. In 2019, 26.4 opioid prescriptions were given out for every 100 people in Prince Edward County. One year later, that had dropped to 20.8. In Buckingham, the number was 6.5 prescriptions in 2019, falling even lower to 4.4 in 2020. And Cumberland was the lowest of the three, with just 0.1 prescriptions for each 100 people. So again, the problem isn’t current prescriptions. 

And while fewer prescriptions helps potentially lower the number of addicts in the future, local officials still have to deal with the existing addicts. Currently, for example, Prince Edward County has an annual rate of 26.1 deaths per 1,000 residents linked to opioid addiction. There are also hidden costs related to addiction. The Virginia Department of Health partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University to launch an opioid cost calculator for cities and counties in Virginia. The tool looks at the loss of labor costs in the county, along with costs of crime related to addiction, state and local government costs and healthcare costs related to the problem.

To this point, the opioid crisis has cost Prince Edward County $7.4 million, with an ongoing annual expense of $342 per capita. In Buckingham, the number is $5.3 million, with $318 per capita and Cumberland has seen a cost of $2.6 million, with $273 per capita.

Now the good news is that all of those numbers are in the second-lowest tier in Virginia, highlighting that locally, the problem continues to shrink. But again, to fully solve the problem, current addicts need to be treated. That’s where the drug court would come in. 

“This money is a huge step in the right direction for localities struggling with the opioid epidemic,” Del. Tommy Wright and State Sen. Frank Ruff said in a joint statement. “Though opioids are a problem throughout the nation, Virginia has had many families experiencing life altering drug addictions which can tear families apart. This grant can begin to rebuild a community that is in search of optimism and can provide assurance to families (that) we

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