Vaya Health honored for opioid overdose prevention

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Vaya Health CEO Brian Ingraham (left) and Jesse Smathers, specialty populations clinical director, accept the Programs of Excellence Award on Thursday, Dec. 7.

Vaya Health has received statewide honors for its work to prevent fatal opioid drug overdoses throughout western North Carolina, including McDowell County.

The N.C. Council of Community Programs awarded Vaya, an Asheville-based public managed care organization, with a 2017 Programs of Excellence Award for public awareness and advocacy activities. Vaya CEO Brian Ingraham and Jesse Smathers, Vaya’s specialty populations clinical director, accepted the award on Thursday, Dec. 7 at the council’s Emerging Horizon Conference in Pinehurst, according to a news release.

From 1999 to 2016, more than 12,000 North Carolinians died from opioid-related overdoses, according to state health officials. The state’s mountains and foothills regions have been hit especially hard by the epidemic, devastating families and communities in the 23 counties that Vaya serves.

According to state statistics, McDowell County’s rate of opioid prescriptions is significantly higher than the state average. In 2016, 112 opioid pills were prescribed in McDowell County, on average, for each of the county’s approximately 45,600 residents – the ninth-highest rate of all counties statewide, according to state health data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

And statistics for 2014 show that McDowell County had high rates of drug overdose deaths – between 18 to 20 deaths for every 100,000 residents. That rate was about three times the rate of deaths 15 years earlier, in 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Vaya is working with local agencies to combat this problem.

“Vaya has joined forces with health care providers and local partners to treat addiction and prevent overdose deaths through a variety of services and initiatives,” Ingraham said. “That includes increasing access to naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid drug overdose. Already, these efforts are giving local residents a second chance at life and a chance to begin the recovery process. These individuals are our friends, family, coworkers and neighbors.”

“Our annual Programs of Excellence Awards recognize innovative, effective community partnerships and programs taking place throughout North Carolina,” said N.C. Council Executive Director Mary Hooper. “Vaya’s naloxone distribution efforts are saving lives, raising awareness about substance use disorders and connecting people with local treatment resources. We are so pleased to recognize this important work and the people who are working to make their communities safer and healthier for everyone in western North Carolina.”

In 2016, Vaya’s community reinvestment initiative funded more than 1,300 cartons of naloxone nasal spray, also known as Narcan, for distribution by the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition. In 2017, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services called upon Vaya to coordinate the purchase of nearly 50,000 naloxone cartons for use statewide. Vaya received 5,400 cartons for distribution in western North Carolina.

In August, county government leaders, law enforcement officers and other community stakeholders joined Vaya in assembling naloxone kits for distribution. McDowell County Manager Ashley Wooten helped with putting together these kits. He serves on the Vaya County Commissioner/Manager Advisory Board and each board member assembled the kits.

Each kit included information about opioid use, treatment options and a phone number to call to report overdose reversals. In August, Gov. Roy Cooper visited Vaya’s Asheville headquarters to personally assemble a kit and sign a proclamation recognizing September as Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month, according to the news release.

The 2016 naloxone distribution saved more than 120 lives in 11 counties, with more reversals likely unreported. The recent Narcan distribution efforts are expected to save more than 5,000 lives statewide. As next steps, Vaya plans to work with county managers, law enforcement, recovery houses, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and other partners to ensure naloxone is available to anyone at risk of an opioid overdose.

The N.C. Council represents the state’s local government managers of mental health, substance use disorder and intellectual/developmental disability services. Incorporated in 1983, the council provides its members with a strong, cohesive, statewide voice through policy analysis, communications, technical assistance, conferences and training programs. For more information, visit www.nc-council.org.

Based in Asheville, Vaya Health manages public funds for mental health, substance use disorder and intellectual or developmental disability services in 23 western North Carolina counties: Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey.

Access to care and crisis assistance are available 24/7 at 1-800-849-6127. Learn more at www.vayahealth.com.

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