Rural North Carolina county uses opioid settlements to fund solutions

People move to rural towns for wide-open spaces and a quieter lifestyle. But those benefits become challenges when facing a rising problem nationwide: Opioid addiction.

In a small but growing North Carolina county, an infusion of funding has kick-started a long-term attempt at addressing addiction.

“I think about 66% of this county leaves and goes to another county for jobs,” said Coley Price, the deputy county manager of Harnett County, N.C. His county is a wide rural swath between Raleigh and Charlotte.

In recent years, he has seen opioid addiction become a larger issue.

“So many people are dealing with it, and, you know I hate to use the word ’embarrassed,’ but sometimes it is,” Price said.

Drug overdose deaths nationwide have more than doubled in the last decade. In 2021, Harnett County lost 71 residents to overdose, an all-time high.

It’s a reality seen daily by Jennifer Haney and Leslie Owens. They’re paramedics earmarked for opioid calls.

“I think the average is probably 2-3 [calls] at least a day currently for an average,” Owens said. While most don’t result in death, all represent the power of addiction.

“When we’re worried about making sure that Narcan is in every Harnett County school,” said Owens, “it’s a crisis.”

But for counties in crisis, an opportunity has opened. Recent lawsuits with U.S. companies, drug wholesalers, and others have brought more than $50 billion nationally in settlements. In Harnett County, settlements will yield $11 million over two decades.

The county’s plan starts with Owens and Haney. They only handle opioid calls, spread across the county’s 601 square miles.

“We don’t have the constraints of having to get to the next call,” said Owens, “so we can sit down with these people, talk with these people.”

Next the county plans to set up programs in prison to help opioid users kick their addictions. And Price is part of the inaugural class for Reaching Rural, an initiative helping rural communities nationwide team up on this topic.

“In the urban setting,” said Price, “you have drug treatment courts. You have detox centers. You have transportation. You have housing. That’s what we struggle with.”

It’s easy to give up. It’s easy to throw one’s hands up at a problem that seems too big to corral, unless your roots won’t let you.

That runs true for Price.

“My uncles and cousins run the fire department,” Price said. “I helped put the recreational league together. I want to keep that flame burning.”