Jefferson County Attacking Opioid Crisis With a Multi-Prong Strategy

Fellowship House Executive Director Beth Bachelor executive director of Fellowship House, presents part of Jefferson County’s response to the opioid epidemic. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Jan. 23, 2018 – Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens called opioids the biggest crisis facing Jefferson County and said it is “a pandemic that affects everyone’s lives.”

Stephens’ comments came after officials from Cooper Green Mercy Health Services and several other health agencies presented Jefferson County’s response to the national opioid epidemic during the commission’s committee meeting Tuesday.

The response laid out the county’s use of a three-year, $3.9 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

“This pandemic transcends all racial and socioeconomic boundaries,” Stephens said. “It’s just as prevalent in Mountain Brook as it is in Mulga.”

Medication Assisted Treatment is a key part of Jefferson County’s approach. Dr. Paul O’Leary, the county’s M.A.T. medical director, said Suboxone is a key part of that tactic. But it is not a wonder drug, he said.

“Is it a cure-all? No,” he said. “That also has to do with therapy and treatment and education, not only for the patient but the family. The other thing to know is even with Medication Assisted Treatment, the longer you stay in it, the more likely you’re going to get better.”

O’Leary said those who stop treatment have a relapse rate of about 50 percent. That rate drops to 20 percent if one stays in the program for 3 to 5 years.

The doctor said the cost of a conventional Suboxone clinic is very high – $150 to $200 per visit and then another $200 to $300 a month for the medication.

Beth Bachelor is executive director of Fellowship House, which provides a substance abuse recovery program designed to serve the special needs of individuals who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction and co-occurring disorders. She expressed confidence that M.A.T. will be effective because of a pilot program at Fellowship House for uninsured and under-insured individuals.

“We have tried everything we know to do within the limits of what we have over time with very little positive effect on this population,” Bachelor said. “With Medication Assisted Treatment, we have had a transformational effect just on the people that I’ve been serving.

“People I’ve been serving are more likely to stay in treatment, more likely to finish treatment and are more likely to follow up after treatment,” she continued. “More importantly, they’re more likely to be alive if they participate in treatment.”

The program is open to anyone, not just the indigent, noted Armika Berkley, director of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital.

“Cooper Green’s real mission is to serve the most vulnerable and the under-served in the community,” Berkley said. “Cooper Green’s program will be one of four in this county. We’ve seen the statistics around the need.”

Berkley said a team approach is needed to combat this challenge. Other partners include Jefferson County Department of Health, Alabama Department of Mental Health, United Way and various entities under the UAB umbrella.

Out-of-State Sludge

Following the committee meeting, Stephens was asked about a federal judge reversing a temporary restraining order that allowed Big Sky Environmental to ship sewage sludge from New York and New Jersey into Jefferson County.

That new ruling allows Jefferson County to fine the company if it continues to ship to a train stop near West Jefferson.

“Sometimes the good guys do win,” Stephens said. “Jefferson County is not a dumping ground. We want to make that emphatically clear. They need to stop now.”