BOONE — High Country Community Health is among seven health centers in North Carolina to receive federal funding to expand substance abuse services, with a specific focus on treatment of opioid use disorders in underserved populations.
HCCH — a federally qualified health center that opened in 2013 — received a two-year grant of $379,167 to establish an expanded, sustainable substance abuse treatment program in a collaboration with Stepping Stone of Boone.
“The opioid epidemic is one of the most pressing public health issues in the United States today,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell in a statement March 11. “Expanding access to medication-assisted treatment and integrating these services in health centers bolsters nationwide efforts to curb opioid misuse and abuse, supports approximately 124,000 new patients accessing substance use treatment for recovery and helps save lives.”
The abuse of and addiction to opioids, such as heroin and prescription pain medication, is a serious and increasing public health problem, according to HHS.
Approximately 4.5 million people in the United States were nonmedical prescription pain reliever users in 2013, and an estimated 289,000 were current heroin users, according to the center.
HHS also estimates the number of unintentional overdose deaths from prescription pain medications has nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2013, and deaths related to heroin increased 39 percent between 2012 and 2013.
The High Country has not been immune to the nationwide heroin and opioid epidemic. In February, Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford stated that of 12 deaths investigated by his department in 2015, at least five were suspected to be from drug overdoses.
“There is a high need for this kind of program in the area,” said Alice Salthouse, CEO of HCCH. “This is an epidemic for our nation. We want to help folks who have gotten into a bad situation get into a better way of life.”
HCCH receives funding from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to offer medical and dental services in Watauga and Avery counties.
HCCH services are available to any patient regardless of insurance coverage.
The offices accept private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, and for the uninsured, a sliding fee scale is available based on income.
Stepping Stone of Boone is a private, outpatient, medically assisted addiction treatment program located at 643-L Greenway Road in Boone.
The clinic helps those who are addicted to opiates such as heroin, morphine, Oxycontin, oxycodone and other prescription painkillers through a combination of medication and counseling.
The partnership will allow for the expansion of the Stepping Stone clinic at its current location and provide for additional staff, including a full-time nurse, therapist and receptionist and a part-time primary care provider.
The program’s two main goals are to increase the number of people who have access to substance abuse treatment and to provide primary care available on-site for those patients, Salthouse said.
Research demonstrates that a whole patient approach to treatment — through a combination of medication and counseling and behavioral therapies — is most successful in treating opioid use disorders, according to HHS.
Stepping Stone already has the licensure and certifications that can take up to 18 months to obtain, said Bryan Belcher, HCCH chief information officer.
In turn, HCCH, as a federally qualified health center, can accept multiple forms of payment, including private insurance, and it receives higher federal Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates than private providers, Salthouse said.
HCCH also has access to federal malpractice insurance and staff training resources.
The partnership allows the expanded clinic to be up and running within four months and sets the stage for sustainable operation once the federal grant funds have been exhausted, Salthouse and Belcher said.
Nationally, $94 million in grants from the HRSA is expected to help awardees hire approximately 800 providers to treat nearly 124,000 new patients, as well as provide training and educational resources to help health professionals make informed prescribing decisions.
Salthouse said High Country Community Health is continually working to educate local residents about the services they offer.
“The community at large does not understand the asset that they have in HCCH and the things that we are able to do,” she said.
Among HCCH’s services are assistance to individuals seeking health insurance on the Health Insurance Marketplace exchange and helping them learn if they are eligible for federal subsidies.
“It can be life altering for someone to come in that has a health condition and no insurance,” she said. “We can help them so that they get on that health exchange and find a plan that they can afford and get their medicine.”
In addition, HCCH offers a hepatitis C treatment program.
North Carolina health leaders have deemed there to be a hepatitis C epidemic in Western North Carolina, said Salthouse, and if screening for the disease does not increase, the area could see a fourfold increase of sclerosis, liver cancer and deaths within a decade.
Medication available now provides a 96 percent cure rate, Belcher noted.
For more information about High Country Community Health, visit highcountrycommunityhealth.com or call (828) 262-3886.