Buncombe County Plans for Opioid Settlement Lawsuits - TribPapers
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Buncombe County Plans for Opioid Settlement Lawsuits

Asheville – Victoria Reichard, Buncombe County’s new behavioral health manager, updated the commissioners on opioid settlement funds. By way of review, before the COVID era, opioid abuse skyrocketed to public awareness just prior to government entities banding together to sue pharmaceutical companies and distributors. The suits were for contributing to, or at least not preventing, the crisis that would later be defined by 500,000 overdoses between 2009 and 2019. The plaintiffs argued that the opioid crisis, with its accompanying high volume of emergency rescue calls and exhausting demands on social services, had burned a hole in their budgets.

The largest class action lawsuit, and the one in which Buncombe County was involved, named Johnson & Johnson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson as defendants. In this case, the plaintiffs were states, acting on behalf of local governments. Under the leadership of former county manager Mandy Stone, Buncombe County strategically positioned itself for maximum disbursements. This lawsuit was settled for $26 million in July 2021, with North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announcing in February that the state would be receiving over $757 million.

Funds will be distributed in accordance with a memorandum of understanding drawn up by a working committee, on which Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara served. Buncombe County will receive a total of $16,175,039, and the City of Asheville will receive an additional $1,518,686. The annual payout schedule zigs and zags before settling at $713,806 for the upcoming years of 2032 through 2038.

Funds may be used to help persons suffering opioid addiction or behavioral health issues attributable thereto. A list included administration, services for justice-involved individuals, housing, employment, naloxone pills with distribution services, and a syringe service program. Reichard reported the county is already “actively practicing” all twelve items on the list, and it has already hired a behavioral health manager and a behavioral health and justice analyst. Don Yelton, during public comment, choked on the prospect of ending the opioid epidemic by supplying more free paraphernalia: the proliferating litter of which is now generating secondary health concerns.

Next steps for the county include identifying key stakeholders, holding community input sessions, planning, and identifying what will be funded. OPINION: To belabor the obvious, funds have already been held up a year. Reportedly, the number of opioid-related deaths over a 12-month period, in the United States, passed the 100,000 mark for the first time of the year ending April 2021. When a hurricane causes a crisis, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Red Cross don’t wait a year to define the problem and develop strategic plans. With the opioid crisis, somehow, we’ve got time to chill and hand out needles several more months while we try to figure out why we sued the big pharmaceutical companies in the first place. Recommendations for disbursements will be presented to the commissioners for approval in August or September.

In Other Matters –

Sheriff Quentin Miller told the commissioners his detention officers needed a raise. While the PowerPoint presentation reported the departure of 83 officers in 2021, the staff report put that number at 90. The reports agree that, to date, the county has only been able to hire back 60. With gratitude to his understanding his wife, Miller told the commissioners he was spending his wedding anniversary evening with them due to the “critical staffing conditions.”

To give an idea of what the job is like, Miller posted statistics of incidences of assaults on staff, detainee attacks on other detainees, use of force, suicide attempts, weapons smuggled into the center, and more. Incident numbers are trending upward this year, and Miller thinks it has to do with the fact that the county is hiring who it can, and many of these people are viewed as inexperienced and vulnerable by inmates.

Although their job entails de-escalating violence among violent offenders, at just over $19/hour, entry-level detention officers in Buncombe County earn as much as a person straightening shelves and helping customers would in Target. To avoid compression, Miller said he wanted a pay increase for everybody in his department, and he gave the commissioners the choice of making it $3, $5, or $7/hour – just as early voting was about to begin.

The exodus of detention officers is a statewide phenomenon, since the Defund the Police movement captured the imagination of elected officials. Now, law enforcement officers have been quitting in droves on a national scale. In answer to a question from Chair Brownie Newman, Miller said some exiting detention officers are retrenched elsewhere in the department, but most are, “moving to other options in their life, as far as outside employment.” More precisely, those who leave are not joining other law enforcement agencies but leaving the profession altogether.

On a bright note, Miller said those transferring have better people skills for crisis de-escalation. So, in a way, the detention center is a great training ground for 21st century policing.

Most of the commissioners supported the $3 option with Miller estimating that it would impact 150 jobs. Commissioner Robert Pressley, even though he had no chance of prevailing, made it known he supported the $5 option. He said the commissioners had just been supportive of making taxpayers responsible for $32/year for conservation and a housing bond referendum. The $5 increase would cost taxpayers only 81 cents per year.

Asked by Commissioner Terri Wells what his long-range compensation strategy was, Miller said he wasn’t averse to drawing one up some time. However, right now, he was trying to make the detention center safe. County Manager Avril Pinder contributed that the county was having conversations about submitting a request for using ARPA funds to provide bonuses across all its departments.

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