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New Hanover County's Healing Place set to open in February after controversy, delays

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New Hanover County
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A rendering of The Healing Place of New Hanover County

New Hanover County Commission will vote to sign the lease agreement on the building at its meeting next week.

On Monday, January 9, New Hanover County Commission is set to vote on approval of the lease agreement for The Healing Place — the controversial detox and treatment facility which uses abstinence-based, peer-led treatment, offering no medically assisted treatment (MAT).

Related: AG Josh Stein talks NC Opioid Settlement funding and medically-assisted treatment

Despite opposition to this style of therapy from Attorney General Josh Stein, New Hanover County is moving forward with leasing to an out-of-state company (The Healing Place of Louisville, KY), which doesn’t provide medical assistance during detox — a dangerous time period for addicted people.

The Healing Place of KY's choice to use peer-led abstinence-based treatment may also prevent New Hanover County's facility from receiving funding from the $26 billion opioid settlement overseen by Stein; last May, the Attorney General was clear that programs that don't offer MAT won't be eligible for this funding. (The joint Wilmington-New Hanover County committee, overseeing local disbursement of opioid settlement funding, recently laid out a proposed spending plan which doesn't appear to direct funding to The Healing Place).

Related: A closer look at medically-assisted opioid use treatment in New Hanover County

Editor's note: The nomenclature is sometimes confusing, but The Healing Place of New Hanover County is the facility located in Wilmington and The Healing Place of Louisville, KY is the company that was chosen to operate it — both are sometimes referred to simply as The Healing Place.

On Thursday, during the agenda review meeting, County Commissioners asked about the details of the agreement between the county and Trillium, a massive quasi-governmental agency that manages state and federal funding for mental and behavioral health.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield asked County Manager Chris Coudriet to confirm some key details.

"So backing up a little bit, the land belongs to Trillium?” Barfield asked.

"Yes sir," Coudriet responded.

“And had we not agreed to work with the Healing Place, Trillium would have taken their land back? Correct?” Barfield continued.

“Yes, sir," Coudriet said.

“Now, they haven't taken the land back. But we're on the hook for everything. Am I hearing this correctly?”

Coudriet responded that the original deal hadn’t changed: Trillium donated the land for The Healing Place NHC and part of the county’s annual contribution to Trillium is being used to finance the construction of the building.

Trillium is funding the day-to-day operation of the facility, and it was Trillium that ultimately decided on an abstinence-based program that will operate at The Healing Place.

By 'on the hook' — Barfield was likely alluding to the contentious history between the county, Trillium, The Healing Place KY, and Coastal Horizons — the Wilmington-based non-profit that was initially put forward by Trillium and the county as the operator of the new treatment center when it required a special-use permit from the City of Wilmington for construction (the facility is located inside city limits).

After a contentious process, involving repeated delays and several heated debates, the permit was approved in 2019, in significant part due to Wilmington city council's confidence in Coastal Horizons.

Then, in the summer of 2020, Trillium's told the county it was going with The Healing Place of Louiseville, KY to operate the facility. Trillium told the county it would renege on its offer to provide the land if the county opted not to go with The Healing Place KY as the operator.

While the county was left with little choice, it still had to vote to approve the arrangement. Barfield dissented from the largely ceremonial vote, but voiced harsh criticism of Trillium, calling the move a "bait and switch" and saying Coastal Horizons had been "pimped or prostituted" to secure the permit from Wilmington.

Related: More on Trillium, Coastal Horizons, and The Healing Place(s)

Some, including Coastal Horizons CEO Margaret Weller-Stargell, have expressed concern about the lack of MAT provided at The Healing Place NHC; those concerns have persisted for years since Trillium decided to go with an abstinence-based model.

In late August last year, The Healing Place NHC did notify the county that, while it would not provide MAT, it would no longer prohibit MAT patients on campus.

The August 22 letter from The Healing Place Executive Director Brian Mingia to County Manager Chris Coudriet noted this change was because new federal guidance from the Department of Justice, released in the spring, indicated that refusing treatment to anyone based on their participation in MAT was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The letter also cited proposed changes to state regulations.

"Based on individualized need and appropriateness, The Healing Place of New Hanover County has made an adjustment to program acceptance criteria for individuals with prescribed medications. To expand access for individuals seeking MAT services, clients who have an MAT provider will be eligible for services," Mingia wrote to Coudriet.

However, the abstinence-based platform of The Healing Place NHC remained unchanged.

"The Healing Place of New Hanover County will not prescribe, provide, or administer these medications. We will continue to be abstinence focused and driven to help all our clients find recovery. Our mission and philosophy of providing open-access recovery services at no direct cost to the client has not changed," Mingia wrote.

Related: A closer look at The Healing Place of New Hanover County, the treatment facility now slated for a fall 2022 opening

The Healing Place is now set to open in February — delayed from the previous opening date in fall of last year.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional information about the opioid settlement funding plan for the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.