Frederick County was front and center at a regional heroin task force summit held Monday in Hagerstown.
The summit was held at the Hager Hall conference center and was hosted by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and the Maryland Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force. Several Frederick County experts spoke to the panel, including State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, health officer Dr. Barbara Brookmyer and Sheriff Chuck Jenkins.
The aim of the task force is, at least in part, to find the best practices to combat the growing use of heroin, which resulted in 32 overdose deaths in Frederick County alone last year, according to data compiled by local law enforcement agencies.
Michael Finegan, the lead psychologist for Maryland State Police, asked Brookmyer to provide the panel with a detailed outline of the county adult detention center’s substance abuse treatment program so it could be replicated in other counties.
Of the 130 inmates who completed the program by June 30, 2014, only 13 have been arrested again, Brookmyer said. The recidivism rate for the general population at the facility was between 54 to 56 percent, she said.
“And we have 40 people on our waiting list, as well, so we’d like to serve more,” Brookmyer said.
Brookmyer spoke about an initiative that launched two weeks ago in which a peer recovery support expert was embedded in Frederick Memorial Hospital’s emergency department to identify patients with drug or substance abuse problems.
“The first day they had eight referrals, next day six referrals, the next day after that eight referrals, so already that one individual is getting close to the maximum amount of individuals he can effectively serve,” Brookmyer said, highlighting the importance of funding for similar efforts.
Funding was a recurring theme throughout the summit that Rutherford addressed during a break. Rutherford stopped short of supporting more funding for substance-abuse programs, saying he believes the problem can be addressed by making sure the money currently allocated is used more efficiently.
“The challenge is … everything is a priority; everything is very important, but there’s a limited amount of resources,” Rutherford said. “One of the things that Gov. [Larry] Hogan has tasked all of us with is making sure that the money we put into programs are being used most effectively, so it may not be an issue of more money.”
Marte Birnbaum, executive director of Gale Recovery Inc., wasn’t so sure. Gale Recovery, a Frederick-based private nonprofit that provides housing, counseling and case management to recovering addicts, almost had to close its doors before it was able to secure several key partnerships to remain open, Birnbaum told the panel.
Gina Pezza-Carbaugh, a Frederick resident, shared the story of her son, Richard Carbaugh-Stone, who died Dec. 5, 2012, after his friends slipped him a lethal dose of heroin and poison. Pezza-Carbaugh now runs the Richard Carbaugh's Hope Foundation, which aims to help others battling addiction, but says she often faces roadblocks from insurance companies that make securing and paying for treatment difficult.
“There is no help. And if there is, it’s two weeks of help. I’m sorry but two weeks is not long enough to help somebody to get clean,” Pezza-Carbaugh said. “... It takes one time, one day for an individual to overdose and die, and that’s one time, one day of a window that I have available to get somebody treatment.”
Kevin Simmers, a retired Hagerstown police sergeant, had trouble sharing the story of his daughter, Brooke Simmers, who he said faced constant setbacks from uncooperative insurance companies during her struggle to get clean. Brooke died of an overdose April 14, Simmers told the panel. She was 19.
“If you have a heart attack, you go to the doctor and they put you in the hospital,” Simmers said, fighting back tears. “If you go with a drug problem, you can’t.”
Smith spent some of his time before the panel advocating for tougher penalties for drug dealers, including passing a law that would allow longer sentences for dealers who sold drugs that led to an overdose death, a law that failed to pass in this year’s General Assembly, Smith said.
“We need to hold [dealers] more accountable, not less accountable,” Smith told the panel.
Smith also cited the need for a more comprehensive approach to educating children about the dangers of drug use, calling the current focus of schools “woefully inadequate.”
Thomas Werner, a Frederick resident who attended the summit, agreed with Smith in his own comments to the panel later in the day, advocating for an independent audit of the school system’s approach to drug prevention education. Werner said he believes many are spending too much time focusing on reacting to the problem instead of preventing it.
“We’ve got a big hole in the side of the ship, and water’s pouring in. What I hear is, ‘We need more buckets’ and ‘bail faster.’ No, we have to stop the influx of new users,” Werner said.
Correction: Due to a reporter's error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the Richard Carbaugh's Hope Foundation and the city where Gina Pezza-Carbaugh lives.