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Smyth County helping to address national opioid crisis with $737,000 grant
Community stakeholders in Smyth County are taking a leadership role in addressing the national opioid crisis at the local level, thanks to a $737,000 federal grant from the Rural Health Opioid Program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
The three-year grant will be used to form a multi-disciplinary opioid consortium, with Smyth County Community Hospital serving as the lead organization.
“This grant will help us save lives,” said James Tyler, chief executive officer of Smyth County Community Hospital, Francis Marion Manor Health & Rehabilitation and Smyth County Home Health. “Healthcare providers across the country and here in our region are battling widespread opioid addiction, and we are committed to making a difference here in our community.”
Smyth County Community Hospital is a member of Ballad Health, a regional health system serving Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, recently formed by the merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health Systems. As part of this merger, Ballad Health made specific commitments to the State of Tennessee and the Commonwealth of Virginia to improve measures related to the provision of addiction treatment services, the number of adults who abuse prescription drugs, the number of drug deaths and the number of babies exposed to addictive substances before birth.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2015, 2 million Americans had a substance use disorder involving prescription painkillers. In Virginia, the total number of fatal drug overdoses statewide has increased each year. According to the state’s department of health, the number of fatal overdoses in 2016 increased by 39 percent from the previous year. The vast majority of overdose deaths are attributed to opioids.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids – such as fentanyl – and pain relievers available legally by prescription, like oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine and many others. Opioids can be highly addictive, and for some, lead to drug dependency, severe withdrawal symptoms and even death.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem,” said Smyth County Sheriff Chip Shuler. “We don’t have the manpower or the jail capacity. It is going to take a comprehensive approach with a focus on mental health because drug issues and mental health issues are connected. This grant will help us make our community well again.”
The new community-based program, which is focused on reducing morbidity and mortality related to opioid use disorder, will work to:
- Educate the community on overcoming the stigma of opioid addiction
- Educate people battling addiction on available services in the community and help to guide them into treatment
- Provide enhanced counseling for hands-on opioid addiction treatment
- Provide expanded peer support opportunities
- And provide care coordination to support people battling opioid addiction to help them get treatment, make appointments, and remove barriers to treatment (i.e. transportation issues, etc.).
Smyth County Community Hospital will lead the newly-formed consortium, which includes the Mount Rogers Health District – Virginia Department of Health, Mount Rogers Community Services Board, Southwest Virginia Community Health Systems (Saltville Medical Clinic), Smyth County School District, Smyth County Sheriff’s Department, Marion Police Department, local ministerial associations, the Smyth County Board of Supervisors and the newly formed Smyth County Drug Recovery Court.
In the initial stage of the plan, the group will hire a program supervisor, a substance abuse counselor and two care coordinators. The employees will work out of the hospital’s emergency department. When a patient is brought in with a suspected drug problem, care coordinators will perform an assessment and identify the best resources to help them. For example, if a patient is brought in by law enforcement and is facing charges, the navigators will work as a go-between for the patient and the local drug court.
Smyth County stakeholders and Smyth County Community Hospital have been on the forefront of opioid addiction solutions for several years. The hospital has partnered with East Tennessee State University’s Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy to provide updated continuing education for its doctors and pharmacists on recent advances in treatment strategies for using pain medication. In 2017, the hospital’s HealthTrust, a nonprofit fundraising organization, purchased three drug take-back boxes for residents to safely dispose of unused prescription medications. These permanent boxes are located inside the Saltville Town Hall, Chilhowie Town Hall and Smyth County Sheriff’s Department.
“We are eager to get started,” said Tyler. “Together, we will work toward our ultimate goal of reducing disease and deaths related to opioid overdoses in our community. We believe this grant will help us provide encouragement, as well as the necessary resources, for those struggling with addictions in Smyth County.”