CLAVERACK — A talk dedicated to the resources available to prevent or treat substance abuse and addiction in Columbia County was held at the Claverack Free Library on Sunday.
From 2014 to 2015, there were 82 opioid overdose deaths in the Capital Region, with 55 percent of them due to heroin overdose, according to a presentation by Columbia County Department of Health Public Health Educator Victoria McGahan. Caucasian residents and those between the ages of 25 and 34 had the highest opioid overdose mortality rates.
Health Department staff are focusing on substance abuse prevention and seeing what resources can fill the gaps in the community, McGahan said. One idea includes medication dropboxes, where residents can get rid of excess medications, and syringe kiosks placed at the Hannaford branches in Valatie and Livingston.
“We’re trying to figure out what is needed,” she said. “We spent a lot of time tracking activity and progress.”
The Columbia County Board of Supervisors has developed priorities to combat the opioid epidemic, such as creating a county coordinator for all of the local advocacy groups, McGahan said.
“One of the issues that we’ve kind of seen is that when you need help, who do you call?” McGahan said. “Something that we’d like to see is to create a clearinghouse, so that you know who that person would be.”
Another priority is to create a much-needed detox facility in the county, McGahan said. Recovery Services Executive Director Beth Schuster said the organization has funding to expand outpatient services, but not for a detox facility. Trying to secure land has also been tricky, she said.
“She [Schuster] has gone through several roundabouts: has a place in mind, goes back to the state, trying to work this out,” McGahan said. “When she comes back to it, it’s sold out from under her.”
There was an outcry two years ago to build a detox facility and Stephanie Sussman, of Claverack, said she believes it should not take so long to build one.
“They need to move faster,” Sussman said. “This problem is getting worse, not better.”
In September 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo awarded over $25 million to communities across the state for substance abuse programs, and Columbia County received nothing, Sussman said.
“There’s nothing to support here,” Sussman said.
Columbia and Greene County officials working together on substance abuse programs can help tap into opportunities each place isn’t getting, McMahan said.
“Independently, we’re both so small that they can’t build a detox facility in every county,” she said.
The nearest detox facilities are in Kingston, Albany and Troy, and plenty of money is available in the county budget to build one, Sussman said after the meeting. Addiction has a ripple effect on the community.
“It makes it a failed effort on their part,” she said of the distances to facilities. “I feel it’s the county’s responsibility to use tax dollars to bring services to those in need.”
Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann discussed the Chatham Cares 4 U initiative, which focuses on getting people who are addicted into treatment promptly. It started in July 2016 as a different way to tackle substance abuse, as imprisoning residents for 10 to 15 years on drug charges is ineffective, Volkmann said.
“The war on drugs is over, we’ve lost it,” Volkmann said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this and we certainly can’t execute our way out of this.”
When the program first started Volkmann was concerned that residents who are addicted wouldn’t come to the police for help.
“They [residents] thought it was a scam, they couldn’t trust the police on this,” Volkmann said. “On the first day, within 10 minutes, totally unrelated, they didn’t even know each other, two people walked in.”
Volkmann soon after became overloaded with calls as he gives Chatham Cares participants his personal cell phone number and subsequently Columbia County Pathways to Recovery created the “Hope Line” to help with the calls, he said.
“Those cell phones got around and we were spending hours talking to families [who] just didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Volkmann listed the top reasons why people don’t seek treatment, which include not being ready to stop doing drugs, having inadequate health care coverage to pay for it, fearing it may have a negative effect on a job, not knowing where to go for treatment and the programs being hard to travel to.
Since partnering with the University of Albany, Volkmann has been able to present raw data discussing the effectiveness of Chatham Cares, he said after the talk. The program has placed 175 participants throughout the area into treatment.
“It helps other agencies and other communities lower their anxiety as [to] exactly what’s going to happen,” he said.
Chatham Police’s annual budget is $157,000 and many faith-based organizations and members of the public have donated money to help the Chatham Cares program, according to Volkmann. In some obituaries, family members have asked people to donate to the program in lieu of flowers.
“That’s the support of the community of ‘Let’s give people a chance,’ because everyone deserves a chance in life,” he said.
Since Ed Kieran, of Stuyvesant, lost his son to addiction, he’s been studying the issue. He said it’s encouraging and refreshing to see what Volkmann has been doing to help with the issue.
“I think this [addiction] is a major problem we need to address,” Kieran said. “The statistics and data is lacking.”
Kieran wants to make sure other parents don’t have to endure the effects of addiction, he said.
“This problem affects people in all walks in life,” he said. “There’s a tremendous need for services in Columbia County.”
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.