U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) visited Cecil County Friday morning for a roundtable discussion about the substance abuse epidemic permeating the county, state and country.
He met with County Council Vice President Alan McCarthy, law enforcement officials, health and substance abuse professionals, volunteers, students and school officials at the Perryville branch of the Cecil County Public Library.
Cardin’s visit was part of an effort to seek ways to curb the number of overdose deaths as well as an outreach by Cecil County to bring additional resources here.
The roundtable came less than a day after Maryland health officials released a new report confirming a statewide spike in overdose deaths for the first six months of 2016. There were 920 deaths in Maryland from January through June due to overdoses, compared to 601 the previous year, a more than 50 percent increase.
Cecil County’s overdose deaths increased from 13 during the first six months of 2015 to 15 during the first six months of 2016, about a 16 percent increase.
State health officials attribute the spike mostly to heroin or fentanyl-laced heroin among other drugs.
“Fentanyl continues to be a grim factor in the scourge we’ve seen grip Maryland in recent years,” said Public Health Deputy Secretary Dr. Howard Haft in a statement released late Thursday. “Fentanyl is significantly more potent than heroin.”
McCarthy, who is the Republican candidate for Cecil County Executive in November, serves as the county council liaison to the county’s Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council and is a staunch supporter of recovery.
“I’d like to see this eradicated,” he said.
As he looked around the seat-filled room, Cardin said he was encouraged by the “incredible turnout.”
“This is a public health crisis in America,” he said, “and, we haven’t seen the end of it yet.”
Cardin acknowledged what most in the discussion already knew, such as that prescription pill misuse has played a large part in the heroin abuse epidemic and that mixing deadly fentanyl with other narcotics is increasing the death toll.
After he began to seek local ideas and opinions, Cardin became impressed with the health department’s peer advocacy program as well as the local creativity used to fund this program and other efforts.
“I’m really impressed with peer recovery, but, it sounds like you really need services on demand and you need funding,” he said. “The system needs to fund these programs for you.”
The senator believes the country’s health care system has adequate money, but needs to find a better way to allocate the funds, based on cost-effectiveness.
When Cardin asked participants Friday if they could identify some of the needs, he heard more addiction counselors, more rehabilitation beds, better insurance reimbursement and better transportation. Cardin acknowledged that Congress hasn’t adequately increased resources to meet the needs of substance abuse, adding that he would do what he could when Congress goes back into session.
“We really need all of us at the table,” he said. “We’ve stove-piped medical care in this country. The system doesn’t reimburse the way it should.”
Cardin said Congress is trying to change the reimbursement model.
“But, it’s like turning an aircraft carrier around,” he noted.
Ken Collins, director of the county’s drug and alcohol division, told Cardin that the local peer advocates are paid through a combination of federal grants and county funds. The eight peer recovery advocates are people in long-term recovery who reach out to overdose patients at the hospital and other places to encourage them to seek help.
Rich Raftery, a health department employee and an advocate, knows the program works.
“The patient has a wall up and the wall is fear,” he said. “We tell them our story and the wall comes down a little.”
Raftery, whose been an advocate for nearly four years, estimates the program has reached about about 600 people so far and about 50 percent of them are now in long-term recovery.
“I see the fruits of our labor because I’m in the community and I see it,” he said.
The program is completely voluntary.
“The carrot to our program is that we’ve been there and we can relate,” added Amy Baumgardner, health department clinical manager and peer advocate coordinator.
Recovery Centers of America’s Bracebridge Hall President & CEO Barbara Kistenmacher said her new residential rehabilitation facility in Earleville should start accepting patients in about one week. It is an exclusive facility that charges about $1,000 a day, which is out of the price range of many who need those services, but they will be offering limited scholarships for about 6 percent to 15 percent of their beds.
Nicole Baldino and Caitlyn Rund, a junior and senior at Elkton High School respectively, participated in the roundtable Friday as representatives of the county’s drug free coalition team.
They told Cardin that they are trying to start a youth coalition at the school to educate other students and to offer positive options
“One of the problems we see is that young people don’t always want to listen,” Rund said.
April Foster, who runs S.T.E.P.S. Recovery Resources, told Cardin she works closely with the Rising Sun Police Department who call her for help getting an addict connected to services, noting she gets a lot of calls on weekends.
“This is not easy,” Cardin said. “I’ve learned a lot today and I’ll try to get you more resources and try to change the system.”
County Health Officer Stephanie Garrity thanked Cardin and McCarthy for their support.
“We are seeing progress, but we can’t do this alone,” she said.
McCarthy hopes to bring Cardin back in one year to assess the progress.
“I think we had a good discussion today,” he said.