County commissioners turn their attention to Island addiction

All seven county commissioner seats will be up for election in November. — File photo

Having assumed the chairmanship of the Dukes County Commission, Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs plans to spearhead a county effort to address substance abuse. The campaign kicks off Wednesday, March 2, when the county commissioners plan to meet with Island health officials about the state of substance abuse on Martha’s Vineyard.

Bill Croke of Edgartown, chairman of the Dukes County Health Council substance abuse committee, and Julie Faye, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, will meet with the commissioners to outline substance abuse problems on the Island.

In a phone conversation with The Times, Ms. Todd said that she intends to make battling addiction on Martha’s Vineyard her top priority as county commission chairman, a position she filled last month. Ms. Todd said that she believes the county could take on a coordinating role in what has been a scattered but passionate community effort to combat a very complex problem.

She said the March 2 presentation will outline services “we are offering, services we aren’t offering, and [identify] the voids.” The discussion, she said, will focus on addiction broadly, though she said she believes opioid abuse is the most acute substance abuse problem right now.

Last week, during a preliminary discussion of the $1.6 million fiscal year (FY) 17 county budget, which begins July 1, 2016, commissioners voted to raise the $1,000 allotted annually for the Dukes County Health Council to $5,000. The additional $4,000 will be specifically earmarked for dealing with issues of substance abuse. But Ms. Todd would like to see the county’s role extend far beyond the budget.

“What we’d ultimately like to see is that a grant writer is hired by the Health Council to find out what funds are out there, and begin the process of going after them so we can begin to move forward to come up with concrete solutions to the problem out here on Martha’s Vineyard,” Ms. Todd said.

The county’s budget is still in draft form, but Ms. Todd is hopeful that such a grant writer could be hired down the line, potentially with special funds approved later on.

Ms. Todd said she thinks the county would be able to secure more funding from outside bodies because a grant writer would be applying on behalf of the municipal body, which she believes would provide more leverage in an application process.

Recognizing that the issue of addiction is “complex and far-reaching,” Ms. Todd said that while Islanders do a “great job” with programs that work to take preventive measures against addiction with programs like the Youth Task Force, and there are services for seniors, there is a gap in service for people between the ages of 22 and 65.

“There’s that whole gap of people in between, who I don’t think are getting the support that they need,” Ms. Todd said.

Ms. Todd said substance abuse affects everyone in a community. “I also view it as something that affects all the families and friends and loved ones of addicts, who are suffering in silence,” she said. “I question what cost that has on our society.”

She described family members of addicts who are riddled with medical bills, depression, and “who are feeling hopeless, alone, stigmatized, isolated as a result, with very few resources other than 12-step programs.”

Ms. Todd said about strengthening the county’s role, “It’s about bringing all the stakeholders together.”

Far-reaching effects

Ms. Todd is looking to the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, which has compiled a report on substance abuse, for strategies. That report made recommendations to Barnstable County for handling substance abuse, and listed statistics delineating the scope of addiction.

“A lot of their success had to do with Barnstable County getting behind it and not just leaving it up to the health officials,” Ms. Todd said.

The report, dated March 2015, said that 7.9 percent of the population in Barnstable County were addicted to alcohol, and that 3.1 percent were addicted to heroin or prescription opioids. The report also said that while deaths related to heroin and opioids were only 0.1 percent greater than deaths related to alcohol, the rate of death associated with heroin and opioids was accelerating at a much higher rate.

Aside from gathering data, the report also made recommendations related to harm reduction, prevention, treatment and recovery, and criminal justice and law enforcement. These included increasing awareness about addiction as a disease, centralizing substance abuse referrals, expanded recovery support services, and diversion programs such as drug courts.

“We will be talking about the Barnstable County report at our March 2 meeting, and hopefully using their success to sort of base the program here off of,” Ms. Todd said.

Mr. Croke, a retired marketing professional with a long history of assisting nonprofits in the field of substance abuse, said Dukes County should treat substance abuse with a public health model, mimicking the major focuses of the Barnstable County report.

At the March 2 meeting, he said, he will attempt to illustrate the scope of substance abuse on the Island, which means reiterating some statistics, summarizing available services, and outlining gaps.

One of the biggest gaps, he said, is the lack of a local detox facility. Second, he said, is “confronting the money issue” and making sure that Martha’s Vineyard “gets its share,” i.e. through grants and publicly available funds.

Mr. Croke said he would like to get immediate stakeholders together, such as health officials and law enforcement, to have a discussion about local substance abuse. From there, he thinks a survey should be issued on behalf of Dukes County to collect data more widely from stakeholders, and after that, additional actions would be decided upon.

Mr. Croke praised Martha’s Vineyard Community Services for doing a terrific job, but he said that substance abuse “is a huge problem.”

Action, he said, is “really overdue.”

Ms. Todd also intends to discuss substance abuse when she attends the All Island Selectmen’s Meeting on Thursday, March 10, at the Tisbury Senior Center. Ms. Todd said that in speaking with Island residents, she has found a general consensus that tackling substance abuse needs to be put “on the fast track.”

“I do get really frustrated,” she said. “But I do remain hopeful.”

The March 2 county commissioner meeting is at 4:30 pm in the county administration building.