New WNC alliance to tackle opioid drug epidemic, overdose deaths

Published 10:00 pm Friday, February 3, 2017

Vaya Health and community partners announced the formation of the Western North Carolina Substance Use Alliance, a collaboration to reduce the prevalence of alcohol and drug misuse, as well as the number of fatal overdoses, in 23 western North Carolina counties.

The misuse and abuse of alcohol, prescription medications and illicit drugs affect the health and well-being of millions of Americans. In 2015, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of heroin-related deaths outnumbered gun homicides. In North Carolina, 25 percent of the 1,567 drug overdose deaths in 2015 involved heroin.

Western North Carolina has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic, which includes heroin, other illicit drugs and prescription pain medications. In 2014, 17 of 23 western North Carolina counties ranked among the top in the state in the rate of fatal overdoses– more than 20 deaths for every 100,000 residents.

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Statewide data also show that all but five counties in the region have higher-than-average rates of opioid pills prescribed per person, particular in counties near the Tennessee border. Macon County topped that list with an average of 258 pills prescribed per resident in 2014, and Swain County prescribers wrote nearly two opioid prescriptions, on average, for each of the county’s 14,000 residents.

The WNC alliance aims to increase collaboration across agencies involved in substance use prevention and treatment, leverage resources to maximize efforts, reduce duplication and establish top priorities for the region. This includes coordinating efforts to increase access to treatment and recovery services, strengthen prevention and education efforts and examine the impact of substance use on overall health and economic development, as a result of lost worker productivity.

The alliance will be chaired by Brian Ingraham, CEO of Vaya Health, which manages publicly funded mental health, substance use and developmental disability services in western North Carolina.

“Our region is in experiencing an epidemic of opioid addiction, as well as misuse of other substances,” Ingraham said. “By bringing together some of western North Carolina’s most dedicated, knowledgeable individuals and agencies, this alliance will allow us to build on each other’s efforts and make a greater impact as a team than we can acting separately.”

The alliance will focus its efforts on the 23 counties Vaya currently serves and be guided by both the 2016 report of the N.C. Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use and the first-ever Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, also released last year.

Four sub-committees will focus on key areas:

• Safe opioid prescribing and medication-assisted treatment, chaired by Dr. Blake Fagan of the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC)

• Women and perinatal substance use treatment, chaired by Leslie McCrory, substance use consultant for Vaya Health

• Adult substance use treatment continuum and crisis services, chaired by Chad Husted of October Road, Inc.

• Child and adolescent treatment continuum and prevention services, chaired by Danielle Arias of RHA Health Services, Inc. (RHA)

The alliance’s steering committee include representatives from Vaya, Mission Health, MAHEC, Buncombe and Henderson county governments, Duke Life Point, High Country Community Health, Project Lazarus, RHA, October Road, the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority and the local criminal justice system.

The counties involved in the alliance are: Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey.

For more information about the alliance, visit

– article submitted by Rachel Leonard-Spencer