SHARON MCBRAYER Staff Writer
Burke County commissioners have been talking about renovating the former Burke-Catawba District Confinement Facility for a regional long-term drug treatment facility since at least January 2020.
Last week, the Burke County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a contract with Hemphill Randel Associates for $256,000 for architectural design services for the facility.
During that meeting, Commissioners Wayne Abele and Maynard Taylor, who voted against the measure, argued against renovating the facility, saying they were blindsided by the proposal of reusing the building for a long-term drug treatment facility, that the facility should not be used for drug rehabilitation and made the accusation there were secret meetings about the item.
But the proposal has been talked about in county commissioners meetings numerous times in the last two years.
The money to renovate the facility is coming from state coffers and money from a lawsuit settlement will be available for treatment.
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The county was one of the cities and counties throughout the US who sued opioid distributors Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen and opioid manufacturers Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma. The county joined the lawsuit in February 2018. The lawsuit was settled for $26 billion in July 2021, and Burke County is expected to receive approximately $13 million over an 18-year period.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said in late February that the defendants will start releasing funds to a national administrator on April 2 and money will start flowing to state and local governments in the second quarter of this year.
Burke officials have said that money will be used for treatment of addicted residents.
County officials are planning for that treatment to take place at the former jail on Government Drive. The state’s two-year budget allocated $3.25 million to Burke County to renovate the facility.
Burke County Manager Bryan Steen told The News Herald that the money for renovation is expected to come to the county before July, which will be the start of the 2022-23 fiscal year. He said he’s told Hemphill Randel Associates not to start anything that’s billable until the county gets the money from the state for renovations.
With the current increase of cost of building materials, it’s unknown at this point whether $3.25 million will cover the entire cost of renovation. Steen said the cost of renovation was estimated at $3.25 million. He said the cost of a project is never known until it goes out for bids.
Drugs in Burke, state
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks dispensing rates of opioids down to the county level. In 2015, Burke County was dispensing 154.9 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. In 2017, that level dropped but there were still more prescriptions written than people, with 124.8 prescriptions per 100 people. By 2018, the dispensing number had fallen to 101.2 prescriptions per 100 people.
And as of 2020, that number had fallen to 61.3 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in Burke County, according to CDC figures.
Even though the rate of opioid prescriptions has fallen in Burke County, it remains one of the counties in North Carolina with a high rate of prescriptions written per 100 people. Nearby Catawba and Cleveland counties still have more opioid prescriptions written than people, according to CDC figures.
North Carolina saw a statistically significant decrease in prescription opioid overdose deaths from 2018 to 2019, falling 14.9%, according to the CDC. The state saw 489 opioid overdose deaths in 2018 and that number fell to 420 deaths in 2019.
But the state still had one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the country in 2019, according to CDC data.
And it’s not just prescription opioids that are killing Burke County and North Carolina residents. Synthetic opioids killed an even higher number of people in the state, with 1,272 deaths reported in 2018 and 1,363 deaths in 2019.
In fact, the CDC says that synthetic opioids killed more people in the US than any other type of opioid.
In addition, the CDC shows that heroin killed 619 people in the state in 2018 and 586 people in 2019.
The CDC says fentanyl is approximately 50 times as potent as heroin. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs are being mixed into counterfeit opioid pills, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, the agency says.
Drug addiction impact in Burke
At this point, who will actually run the drug rehabilitation facility is unclear. But Steen said he’s pretty certain it won’t be the county.
And it won’t be Partners Behavioral Health Management. Partners is the Local Management Entity for Burke County. Partners was brought in early in the discussion about possibly running the facility, but Steen said the LME has since told the county it’s not interested in operating the facility. He said who would manage it is yet to be determined but there is still plenty of time to work out that detail.
But two agencies in Burke have become part of the conversation.
“So substance use is a real issue here in Burke County,” said Danny Scalise, director of the Burke County Health Department. It’s been in our last two community health assessments. We know the statistics. Burke County’s a top county for drug poisoning in the state.”
Scalise said now that Burke County is coming out the COVID-19 pandemic, substance abuse is going to be a big focus for the health department.
He said Steen talked to him and Korey Fisher-Wellman, director of the Burke County Department of Social Services, about the potential for the two departments to be involved in the facility.
“We both understand this is a problem for the people we serve, and for all people in Burke County,” Scalise said about he and Fisher-Wellman.
As of March 1, Burke County Department of Social Services had 252 children from ages zero to 18 in its child protective services, Fisher-Wellman said.
Substance abuse in the home isn’t the reason all of those children are in foster care, but Fisher-Wellman said all cases involve substance misuse at some level.
“It certainly plays a role in whether or not we’re able to reunify children,” he said. “So sometimes you might get involved for another reason, but then, as you continue to work with the families, substance use becomes an issue for sure.”
How long the treatment period will be for someone hasn’t been determined, but Steen said the intentions have been for it to be however long it takes for the treatment to be effective.
“One thing I want to make sure is we’re not just gonna say whatever we do, it’s gonna be just the bare minimum,” Scalise said. “Korey and I both talked about this, our goal is to treat people that come here that need our help with dignity, and make sure that they get the treatment that (is) the best that we can provide.”
Steen said while an architect has been hired for the project, it is still very early in the process but they have been brainstorming the possibilities for the facility. Any actual decisions would go before the county commissioners at the appropriate time, he said.
As of now, there’s no data on how many beds the facility would have or how many people would seek treatment there.
Steen said it likely will be after the first of the year before the architectural work will be done and then the county could have an idea of what number of beds would be in the facility. He said the country also will need to work with its service providers to talk about the quality of service and the treatments that would be provided, and then have that brought to the commissioners for them to make a final decision.
“We know there’s a problem here,” Scalise said. “Korey and I have talked a lot about what we need to do from our standpoint, from a public health standpoint, to help with this problem, because we see it as a public health issue.”
Fisher-Wellman said, “I think from DSS’ perspective, we sit and watch the kind of the, you know, children coming into foster care is sometimes it’s a symptom of the problem. And I think for me, I think we just get to kind of sit around and watch the problems. I think that’s how Danny and I kind of got involved. Like I think we know there’s a problem and want to do whatever we can do to make sure that we’re helping the citizens of this county.”
A regional facility wouldn’t just be about treatment. The idea is to also include some type of job training for those going through treatment so they can be employed when they are ready to leave treatment, county officials have said.
Currently, it’s unclear how many people from Burke County would seek treatment at the regional facility. Scalise said they can’t forecast that right now.
“We have a problem here,” Scalise said. “And we need to dig into it and we need to solve it. We need to help solve it.”