Josh Stein meets with Robeson County leaders to discuss ideas for additional $9 million they're receiving to combat opioid crisis

22 April 2022

Robeson County is one of the hardest hit areas in our state when it comes to the opioid crisis.

Through the Opioid Settlement, the county is receiving $9 million to combat the issue. That’s in addition to the $10 million the county is due to receive through the state budget.

Attorney General Josh Stein traveled to the Robeson County on Friday, meeting with people who are part of a consortium, which has been hyper-focused on the area’s growing substance use disorder issues. Those involved in this holistic approach work at nonprofits and hospitals, in criminal justice and at churches.

This funding coming to Robeson from the $750 million awarded to the state through this settlement agreement with major pharmaceutical manufacturers. It’s a lawsuit Stein worked to lead. In all, $26 billion was awarded to states around the country.

States and Cities Near Tentative $26 Billion Deal in Opioids Cases

The money will be distributed over 18 years. The bulk of it in the first five or six years. Stein says that will allow counties to build infrastructure and figure out they can best address the needs of residents.

“That money will go to organizations that will change people’s lives,” Stein said. “There will be people alive and happy next year and the year after who otherwise wouldn’t be.”

In Robeson County, it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t been touched by the crisis.

“Like a lot of people here, I come from a family where addiction runs in the family,” said Robeson County District Attorney Matt Scott. “It drives me.”

The county’s rate per capita for emergency department visits related to opioid use in 2020 was 495.3 — that’s 3.5 times the state’s rate.

In total, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services tracks 14 metrics ranging from deaths resulting from an overdose to the number of children placed in foster care due to addiction. Robeson County ranks as the highest county in 10 of those metrics.

“I have never seen a more impactful epidemic of substance use disorder in anywhere else I’ve ever practiced,” said Dr. Marla Jo Hardenbergh, an Addiction Medicine specialist in Southeastern’s Obstetrics & Gynecology department.

She says other counties in the state are more affluent resulting in more resources so she is looking forward to building a stronger community to encourage long term recovery.

“These patients deserve the same chance to get better,” Hardenbergh said.

The county currently lacks options for inpatient services. A nonprofit organization called Hope Alive, Inc. is hoping to fill that gap.

“It’s different culture [here] so we have to develop a program to fit our culture,” said Pastor Ronald Barnes, the group’s founder and the leader at Greater Hope International Church, which is affiliated with the nonprofit.

Friday’s meeting in Robeson is the first time we’ve heard from the pastor since January when WRAL first raised questions about the organization receiving a large amount of state funding and uncovered the pastor’s prior convictions for embezzlement. Since our reporting, the state altered the budget requiring additional reporting and further collaboration with medical groups.

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“I will say to anyone in this room that I am willing to take any backlash, jump through any hoops, pull any weight, go under any burden to bring a change in our county,” Barnes said.

The group is planning on using part of that funding to buy and renovate an 82-bed facility in Parkton. Barnes said on Friday that they will close on the building this week and begin outfitting it the following week. He also noted that it will be primarily used to service men in the community who are living with substance use disorder.

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