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Special Report: How big is the heroin crisis in WNC?

(FILE) Heroin and drug paraphernalia, Photo Date: September 17, 2008 (Photo credit: Andres Rodriguez / CC BY-SA 2.0)

It's one of the biggest killers in North Carolina - heroin.

It's taking thousands of lives each year throughout the state. The latest N.C. poison report shows heroin and other opioid overdoses are still the number one call coming into their center.

It's an epidemic that reaches almost every household and is stretching government agencies to their limits.

Right now, statistics show about 50 people die every year from an overdose in Buncombe County. Statewide, overdose deaths have nearly tripled in the past 15 years.

CALLS FOR HELP


Almost every day, Henderson County paramedics respond to frantic calls, people asking for help after a friend or relative has taken too many drugs.

EMS manager Mike Barnett said they've seen a recent hike in overdoses. He fears those preventable calls could delay how long it takes their crews to get to other emergencies.

"If the numbers continue to get higher, it could cause response delays in areas of the county where we are responding to those calls," Barnett said.

Now, most responders carry the drug Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an overdose and save a life.

Barnett said it was used more than 100 times last year alone. "An opioid overdose often results in somebody that quits breathing which will be fatal if that's not reversed," he explained.

But Barnett said the cost of Narcan has doubled over the past few years. In fact, just last week, the device that injects Narcan went up 650 percent in price.

Barnett said even though they've added more ambulances and crews, those resources are already stretched thin.

INMATES ADDICTED


The problem is just as alarming at the Henderson County jail, where 85 percent of today's inmate population is addicted to drugs. Sheriff's Spokesperson Frank Stout says 60 percent of those are opioid addictions.

The prisoners come to the medical center for expensive treatment. "The cost of it is truly astronomical in the big picture," Stout said.

Stout said there's also transportation expenses taking inmates to the hospital and overtime for officers to wait there during detox. He said those bills fall back on taxpayers.

"These are very, very taxing and we can't, it's hard to plan because we don't know who is going to come in and what their problem is when they get here," Stout explained.

Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt said he's watched as the opioid epidemic has grown, now reaching every agency. He called it a nightmare.

"There is only one way to address this -- Don't get started. Don't go down this path to hell. Don't do that because once you go down this path, it is very difficult," Wyatt said.

NOT ENOUGH RESOURCES


Leaders at Vaya Health agree with the county manager.

Dr. Craig Martin said the crisis has hit Western North Carolina especially hard. He said opioid use picked up during the recession as manufacturing jobs vanished.

"I'm sad to report that in Western North Carolina we are in very bad shape compared to other counties in the state," CEO Brian Ingraham said.

Statistics from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services show that in 2014, Macon County has the highest rate of prescriptions in the state -- an average of 258 pills per resident. In Buncombe County, more than 16 million pills were prescribed in one year alone.

"I would say it's a public health crisis. It affects almost everyone. It's a very big problem," Dr. Craig Martin said.

Vaya Health tells News 13 the gap between those needing help and those providing it is alarming.

Ingraham said for every five addicts, there's only funding for one to get treatment. He said the biggest need is money, along with more long-term treatment facilities.

"I can tell you there are hundreds if not thousands of people who do go without care," Ingraham said.

FIXING THE PROBLEM


Vaya Health is now starting a new effort to address these concerns - the first of its kind in the area.

The group is called the Western North Carolina Substance Use Alliance. Ingraham said it's made up of partners and agencies ready to finally turn the tragic trend around.

"Hopefully, we can take the energy from a lot of great grassroots efforts and scale it up and try to see if we can really make a difference," Ingraham said.

The goal is to reduce substance abuse and the number of fatal overdoses.

MORE RESOURCES


Vaya Health offers a free 24/7 hotline if you need help. Just call 1-800-849-6127.

C3356 Comprehensive Care Center: http://www.c3356.org/

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coaltion: http://www.nchrc.org/

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