Luzerne County resident Carol Fahnestock helped set the tone for the first County Cares Commission meeting Monday when she revealed she lost her oldest daughter to an accidental drug overdose 29 months ago to the day.
“If I can save one parent to get that phone call … ,” Fahnestock, a commission member, said during introductions in the virtual session. “It just completely knocks your feet out from underneath you.”
In telling her story, she identified two issues she wants to address on the commission — stigma and misconceptions.
Her daughter had a normal upbringing, went to college and worked, she said.
Some still mistakenly believe it’s only “the people who are hanging around Public Square” in Wilkes-Barre struggling with substance use disorder, she said.
“It’s the people you work with. It’s the people that you see every day,” Fahnestock said.
Proposed by county Councilman Matthew Vough, the commission will focus on drug and alcohol abuse and recovery and homelessness.
Opioid addiction remains a concern. As of July 29, the county had 62 confirmed overdose deaths and 17 pending toxicology test results, which places the count at a likely 79, according to information from the county coroner’s office.
If that trend continues, the county is on pace to meet or exceed the 128 overdose deaths in 2019.
Most county overdose deaths are related to opioids and the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, the coroner’s office said.
In addition, alcohol continues its historic track record as the most abused substance in the county, and more cases involving methamphetamine are surfacing in area emergency rooms and among residents seeking inpatient treatment, said county Drug and Alcohol Administrator Ryan Hogan.
On the subject of homelessness, commission member Justin Behrens estimated there are about 189 homeless people currently in the county.
The county and country as a whole are “broken” in the way they deal with drugs and alcohol, mental illness and homelessness, said Behrens, executive director and CEO of Keystone Mission, which provides outreach services to the homeless in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton.
Behrens said he dealt with two drug overdoses on Monday, noting spice laced with fentanyl and opioids are still “rampant.”
He suggested the commission first identify all problems that need to be addressed before figuring out ways it can serve as an intermediary and assist. The commission can be a valuable resource to show the public what must be fixed, Behrens said, emphasizing he believes solutions should come at the community level.
Hogan weighs in
Invited to be the first guest speaker, Hogan highlighted his department’s in-house work to quickly screen and assess those seeking help and get them into the type of treatment that best meets their needs, working with a range of outside providers.
He stressed drug and alcohol treatment is completely voluntary. Unlike mental health, there is no involuntary commitment process to force a loved one into treatment, even if their addiction is posing a risk to themselves or others, he said.
County human service agencies have been working “more collaboratively” to help clients who often benefit from services provided by multiple departments, he said.
Hogan said he was proud that he and multiple providers were on scene working with homeless people at a Wilkes-Barre camp dismantled by the city on Monday.
Through state grant funding, his department also has partnered with the Commission on Economic Opportunity to provide up to six months of housing, utility or transportation assistance to residents with opioid use disorder who can prove their are actively participating in treatment administered by one of the department’s providers, Hogan said.
More than 300 county residents have received assistance through this program to date, with the premise that extending the time they are successful in recovery will improve their likelihood of long-term success, Hogan said.
During a commission discussion about goals, Fahnestock said she wants to strengthen a “warm handoff” program aiming to get hospitalized overdose patients into detox and treatment.
Fahnestock said connecting to these patients when they are “most vulnerable” is crucial.
Speaking from personal experience, she said her daughter was in a car crash about five months before she overdosed and had multiple drugs in her system. However, her daughter never met with social workers or anyone about treatment options and left the hospital with a prescription for oxycontin, she said.
“Talk about enabling the addict,” Fahnestock said.
Hogan said he is in regular communications with hospital officials about ways to improve the program so emergency rooms have rapid access to drug and alcohol specialists who will work with patients and encourage and navigate treatment options.
“It’s number one on my list right now,” Hogan said.
Commission member Marcella Garvin, a certified recovery specialist, urged work on eliminating barriers, particularly for residents receiving medication-assisted treatment — Suboxone, Vivitrol and methadone — for opioid addiction.
Vough said commission meetings will be held monthly. He was named commission chairman Monday, and Joseph Grilli will be vice chair.