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Fayetteville Task Force Works to Break Cycle of Opioid Abuse 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

In June, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared that our nation "is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic." And it wasn’t the first time it’s been said. According to federal statistics from 2014, more people died from drug overdoses that year than in any year prior, most of those deaths involving opioids. Sadly, the latest figure of annual health and social costs related to prescription opioid abuse is $55 billion.

That’s going to change, public officials say, as research points to preventive solutions and initiatives develop to administer them.

"Appropriate treatment and early intervention can result in significant benefits for individuals, families, communities and taxpayers," notes a recent report from the Fayetteville-area Task Force on Substance and Opioid Abuse, a joint effort of the City of Fayetteville and the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Fayetteville, a town with a notable military and veteran population, stands out in the conversation. The task force will be the first to tell you – and does so at the top of its report – that a study this year ranked the city 15th in the U.S. for opioid abuse. But Mayor Nat Robertson, who co-chairs the task force, sees hope.

Already, the group’s work has led major medical centers in the area, including private practices and those run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to change their protocols for prescribing opioids to patients – limiting those prescriptions, essentially.

"So when you have the major medical centers saying we’re going to change protocol and see if it makes a difference, then I think we’re going to be able to see a difference in outcomes," the mayor said.

It’s been the biggest win so far on the supply side. On the demand side, the task force has launched a 24-hour hotline for crisis assistance, reached out to the public with high-quality, city-produced promotional materials, and sought and received coverage by media partners.

City-produced public service announcements are commercial quality and take a compassionate approach. "No one starts out with the intention of becoming addicted to painkillers or heroin," the narrator says, over imagery of people from all walks of life struggling with opioids. "There is hope," voices repeat before encouraging anyone in such a crisis to dial (910) 424-HOPE.

"We, as a group, understand that this is, and will always be, an ongoing battle that we must face as a community, but it is our hope that through this task force we will be able to get more people into treatment instead of jail, and therefore, begin to break the cycle," Mayor Robertson said.

For the task force, a recurring finding during the investigation stage was a disconnect between the individuals struggling with opioid abuse and the resources available to them – "a debilitating hindrance." But awareness of the issue is helping the response in Fayetteville.

Cohen Veterans Network gives free mental healthcare to veterans and family members and, for sometime next year, plans to create a new Fayetteville facility estimated to cost as much as $12 million. Cumberland County Communicare, which runs the local crisis hotline, is set to open a recovery center in town with "open access for screening, assessments and referrals to services for anyone looking for recovery services, including substance use treatment, opioid treatment, 12-stop programs and other resources."

But the work, while vital, isn’t as important as the outcomes, Mayor Robertson emphasized. The task force will soon measure the effects of its efforts, including the change in prescription protocols, hoping to see a difference.

"That’s what I’m looking forward to," said Mayor Robertson.