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New WNC alliance to tackle opioid drug epidemic (From

A new Western North Carolina alliance has formed to confront the spread of drug and alcohol misuse and reduce the number of fatal overdoses in the region.

Vaya Health, along with several community partners including Henderson County government, announced Tuesday the formation of the Western North Carolina Substance Use Alliance. It covers the 23 counties in the western part of the state, including Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties.

Western North Carolina has experienced firsthand the opioid epidemic that continues to spread across the country, Vaya Health said in a news release. This includes heroin, along with other illicit drugs and prescription pain medications.

In 2014, 17 of the 23 counties in the western region ranked among the top in the state for fatal overdose rates, at more than 20 deaths for every 100,000 residents, according to the release.

Henderson County’s rate of opioid pills prescribed per resident was higher than the state average in 2016, with nearly 75 pills on average for each of the county’s 112,000 residents, according to the N.C. DHHS Prescription Rates by County.

On average, the county had a high rate of prescriptions of benzodiazepines (which includes anti-anxiety medication like Xanax or Valium), at an average of more than 30 pills for every resident.

“Our region is experiencing an epidemic of opioid addictions, as well as misuse of other substances,” Brian Ingraham, CEO of Vaya Health, said in the release. “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.”

Henderson County also had a high rate of drug overdose deaths in 2014, with more than 20 deaths for every 100,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This rate has increased steadily over the last 15 years, and has more than doubled since 1999.

Statewide data shows all but five counties in the region have higher-than-average rates of opioid pills prescribed per person, particularly those near the Tennessee border, according to the release. Macon County topped the list with an average of 258 pills prescribed per resident in 2014.

The new Western North Carolina alliance will aim 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, the release states.

This includes coordinating efforts to increase access to treatment and recovery programs, strengthening prevention and educational resources and examining the impact these issues have on health and economic development.

Four sub-committees will focus on the following key areas:

•Safe opioid prescribing and medication-assisted treatment, chaired by Dr.

Blake Fagan of the Mountain Area Health Education Center.

•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.

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

Reach Rebecca Walter at Follow her on Twitter @BRNRebecca.

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