After Buncombe's deadliest recorded year for overdose deaths, settlement spending starts

Buncombe County commissioners at their Oct. 4 meeting approved nearly $500,000 in the first round of opioid settlement money dedicated to fighting drug addiction and supporting recovery.
Buncombe County commissioners at their Oct. 4 meeting approved nearly $500,000 in the first round of opioid settlement money dedicated to fighting drug addiction and supporting recovery.

ASHEVILLE - Nine months after the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in Buncombe County, the Board of Commissioners approved the first bout of spending dedicated to fighting addiction and supporting recovery.

The Board’s Oct. 4 approval of nearly half-a-million dollars in spending was preceded by public testimony, some informative, some uplifting and some very sobering, all addressing issues and solutions behind the widespread problems of addiction and drug abuse in and around Buncombe.

In a briefing before the regular meeting, people who worked in local recovery efforts shared stories of how they got there.

Some were county employees. Others worked for community organizations. Some had long roads to recovery.

Tyler Grooms’ road was especially difficult.

Currently, he told commissioners, he’s 18 months clean and works in Sunrise Asheville’s Linkage 2 Care reentry operation, a program that “helps recently incarcerated people regain stability and integration back into the community,” according to Sunrise’s website.

Grooms, 30, was one of those people. He said he spent about nine months in the Buncombe County Detention Center. In a past life, he said, he was addicted to and sold drugs and claimed he’d overdosed more than 100 times.

“As far as I know, I've overdosed more than anyone in Western North Carolina,” he said.

The Linkage 2 Care program not only helped him recover, it also put him in a place to prevent others from the kind of life he experienced.

Grooms said his client caseload currently is 35 people.

But he's concerned about people whose addiction has them caught in a cycle similar to the one he was in.

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“I've got friends and family who are locked up in the justice system, who have been in active addiction for 10 plus years and don't know the first thing about sobriety, what that looks like and how to get there,” he said. “And that's the role we play. We introduce options to people before they come back to what they know, which is often a very poisonous situation — you go back home, you get back into the same cycle as you were in once before.”

Grooms' struggle is part of an overdose trend that is killing hundreds of county residents each year, according to data provided by Buncombe County Sheriff’s office during the briefing.

Though North Carolina overdose data shows 118 people in Buncombe died of overdoses in 2021, the actual number is much higher. In a partnership with Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, the Sheriff’s Office found that 161 people died of overdoses in 2021.

That makes it the deadliest year on record. The second-deadliest year for overdoses in Buncombe was 2017, when 155 people died of overdoses, according to Register of Deeds data. The rate had been on the decline through 2020.

Buncombe’s government is working with local community partners to try to break that cycle. The $458,500 it approved Oct. 8 is just a portion of the $1.9 million it can spend in fiscal year 2023. This $1.9 million itself is only 12% of the more than $16 million it will receive over 18 years as part of a nationwide settlement.

As previously reported by the Citizen Times, the settlement comes from cases managed by thousands of lawyers against big drug makers like Johnson & Johnson and Cardinal Health. Local governments across the nation are essentially the plaintiffs in these cases.

In North Carolina, the funds are paid to state governments by drug makers because of the companies' damaging roles in the opioid epidemic, which has led to the deaths of more than 16,000 people in North Carolina over the past 20 years.

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North Carolina will receive more than $757 million of the $26 billion settlement, in which most states are involved.

Like counties across the state and nation, Buncombe is deep into planning for spending that can effectively prevent harm, encourage recovery and bolster life-saving programs and services.

For this kickoff round of spending, that includes five areas, according to the spending ordinance:

  • Collaborative strategic planning — $50,000

  • Evidence-based addiction treatment — $90,000

  • Recovery support services — $120,000

  • Naloxone distribution — $50,000

  • Reentry programs — $148,500

The presentations at the briefing primarily focused on the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment and recovery options as well as community outreach programs, specifically the Buncombe County Community Paramedic Program, which has two years of pilot funding and received 3,075 calls for service in 2021 and 3,189 from January through August in 2022.

Medication-assisted treatment, known as MAT, in Buncombe County Detention Center also is a key part of the settlement funding and recently was praised by Attorney General Josh Stein when visited Asheville and the jail July 25.

Victoria Reichard is Buncombe’s first Behavioral Health Manager, a role created in part to establish connection and continuity inside county government's efforts to address, among other things, addiction and mental health issues.

She’s also a top engineer of the county’s opioid settlement spending plan, which she says should be complete by August.

Her work has focused on the breadth of options available to help Buncombe improve its response to addiction and drug abuse.

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“Everyone's journey to recovery is different,” she told commissioners during the briefing. “And so having a variety of entry points and supports that an individual receives increases the likelihood that they will find the right path for themselves. And so one of our touch points is our community.”

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara praised Reichard and everyone involved in efforts to create recovery and treatment programs and support them with incoming settlement money. Beach-Ferrara, who is running for Congress, is one of 15 commissioners on the "555 Committee," a group embedded in the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and established to engineer settlement deals for localities. The group recently met with the N.C. Department of Justice to nail down the details.

“This was just such an incredible opportunity to do a deep dive on these issues at a time where we are facing such urgent community needs based on the most recent data, and some of the stories we’ve heard,” Beach-Ferrara said.

For more about how the county is spending opioid settlement money, visit engage.buncombe where Buncombe is tracking and publicly outlining its movements on the project.

Andrew Jones is an investigative reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: After Buncombe's deadliest overdose year, 1st settlement spending a go