Opioid Epidemic Test Strips

An addict prepares heroin, placing a fentanyl test strip into the mixing container to check for contamination, Wednesday Aug. 22, 2018, in New York. If the strip registers a "pinkish" to red marker then the heroin is positive for contaminants. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

South Carolina won big when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced more than $1 billion in funds to combat the opioid epidemic.

The state is getting $20.5 million dollars to spend mostly as it chooses on tackling prevention, treatment and recovery of opioid use disorder. 

The biggest slice, $14.2 million, will go to the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. That money will recur again next year, agency director Sara Goldsby said.

Goldsby said she and her agency feels a "tremendous responsibility" to use the money in the best way possible. She said it might be the most money the state has ever received to deal with an issue like the opioid epidemic.

"It's pretty exceptional," she said. "The gratitude I feel is immense."

Data out in the past month shows both high and low points in the state of the epidemic in South Carolina.

On one hand, the number of prescriptions filled for opioid painkillers is down. Experts think that is because of policies put in place by the state limiting how much physicians can prescribe. They hope that will lead to fewer pills in the hands of people who might misuse them. 

But the death toll is climbing as people seem to be turning increasingly to synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, a stronger and more dangerous opioid. 

Goldsby said she's grateful the state's drug abuse agency won't have to lean on the state for funds. Her agency also has leeway to decide how to use the money and plans to spend it several ways: 

  • DAODAS will work on increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, Jimmy Mount, a spokesman for the agency, said. That effort will include treatment offered in the state's emergency rooms.
  • Access to Narcan, the overdose reversal drug law enforcement agencies can use, will be expanded, and more training will be offered.
  • An ad campaign will urge state residents to accept people struggling with addiction.
  • Financial assistance will be offered to the state's poor who need treatment.
  • More assistance will be made available to those leaving the state's jails and prisons.

Goldsby said a trial run of a program that provides prison inmates with the drug Vivitrol has been one of the most interesting efforts of the past year. The injectable medication helps by blocking the "high" people experience when they use opioids.

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That program will be expanded, she said. 

The remaining $6.3 million will go in part toward South Carolina's community health centers.

The state has about two dozen such centers, and they will use the funds for substance use disorder treatment and mental health services, according to Health and Human Services.

At these centers, the number of patients with substance use disorders has grown seven-fold in recent years: from 498 in 2010 to 3,730 in 2016, according to the S.C. Primary Health Care Association. 

In response, the centers have about tripled their staff equipped to treat mental and behavioral health disorders. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.