The City of Huntington and Cabell County are in federal court, taking prescription opioid distributors to task. If the city and county win their lawsuit, that could result in a payout of tens of millions of dollars. And in theory, that money could help fix the problem.
Dr. Lyn O’Connell works with the City of Huntington to tackle the substance use crisis through clinical services, research and program development.
She was also part of a team that produced a “resiliency plan” in 2020 for Huntington. The plan outlines a continuum of care her community could implement to stomp out the opioid crisis.
Health reporter June Leffler asked O’Connell how much a big settlement could loosen the grip opioids have on her community.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Leffler: Do tell me what more we could see in a place like Huntington that already has so many different groups trying to tackle this issue?
O’Connell: I think what many folks imagine is that if an individual wants help, they just pick up the phone, or they just go to the doctor, or they walk in somewhere. It’s really not that easy.
There may be legal issues that need to be handled, there may be child or custodial issues that need to be handled. There may be wait lists that prevent them from doing any of those things. And so what we want to make sure is that we have a system that when someone says “I am ready and willing to enter treatment,” that there are no roadblocks. That transportation is not an issue, insurance is not an issue, that we’re coordinating across all of our systems to ensure that they have easy access. Because we know that when someone is ready and willing, that is the best time to intervene with that individual.
But we also know that it’s not just the individual, it’s the system, the family and the community. It’s a multi-factorial need. Every time that you quote solve one issue, you realize that there’s 10 more sitting behind it.
Leffler: What you think big settlement for the county and the city could accomplish? And what can any amount of money still not get done?
O’Connell: It’s such a challenge, because how do you value a single life lost? How do you place a value on those long-term negative impacts? I, for one, don’t know how to do that. And what can $1 do? Everything and nothing, simultaneously.
We have had grant funding that has allowed us to set up programs like PROACT, that make a concrete difference every day in the lives of people in our community. And things like Project Hope for Women and Children. But to some of the larger sort of systemic and philosophical issues that we’re facing, we will probably always be facing those.
If we take stigma, for example, if we don’t address people’s beliefs that other people aren’t as worth saving, we’re still going to have these fights and these issues, because we’ll have barriers. We’ll have providers who maybe don’t want to work with an individual with a substance use history, or employers that don’t want to hire someone with a substance use history, or judges that may not want to give someone a second chance, whether that’s remaining out of jail or prison or gaining greater custody and access to their children.
We can set up programs and improve access. But we also need to slowly work to educate that no one wakes up one day and hopes to enter a life of substance use disorder. Ideally, multi-millions of dollars being returned to this community could be used to comprehensively address both the concrete issues, but also start to address the philosophical needs as well.