In recent weeks Plumas County Public Health representatives have been to Washington D.C. twice, as well as to the state capitol to share what the county is doing right to fight the opioid crisis locally.
Recently they gathered around their large conference room table to discuss their ventures.
What’s been unique is that often Plumas County is the only rural entity in the mix, and it is being held up as a model for what can be accomplished.
“There is generally a mindset of lack (of resources), and we’ve taken our limited resources to find solutions to our problems and that’s been applauded,” said Shadi Barfjani, program division chief for the Plumas County Health Agency.
Barfjani and Zach Revene, the agency’s assistant director, were in Washington D.C. in last month to attend a meeting with Betty-Ann Bryce, who is the lead in the Public Health Education and Treatment Unit at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“I know you; you guys have been on my radar,” Barfjani recalls Bryce as saying when she met the Plumas County representatives. Barfjani added that Bryce wants to visit Plumas for a closer look at local efforts.
Barfjani said that she and Revene focused on the “collaboration and partnerships” that have aided the county’s effort to address the opioid crisis.
Bryce wanted to learn from rural counties about best practices as well as what would aid their efforts in the opioid fight.
One of those issues is transportation and the inability of residents in rural areas to be able to travel to access recommended treatment.
Barfjani and Revene weren’t the only duo to travel to the nation’s Capitol. James Wilson and Barbara Schott, both health education coordinators for the public health agency, traveled to Washington D.C. last month to speak at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Both trips to D.C. were paid for by grants obtained by the health agency.
Plumas was one of 12 agencies asked to present on what was being done to combat the opioid crisis. Again the pair focused on the collaborative effort that exists within the county — with the sheriff’s office, the courts, behavioral health, social services and private and nonprofit agencies — as well as with other counties.
“On a national scale they are recommending what we are already doing,” Wilson said.
But when asked what could be done to make their jobs easier, Schott said they encouraged a move away from punitive drug laws and advocated for a single-payer health care system so that individuals could cross state lines for treatment. For example, a Californian on MediCal cannot access treatment in Reno.
Back in California, Wilson participated in a small round table discussion with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams on Monday, June 24, and was joined the following day by Barfjani and Nicole Reinert, a health education specialist, to attend the National Opioid Leadership Summit 2019.
During Monday’s roundtable discussion, Wilson was one of 16 individuals invited to participate.
In a letter sent in advance of the roundtable, a Public Health Institute representative wrote, “This is an important conversation because we are focusing on a hand-picked group of experts who have first hand experience with the opioid epidemic in California. We hope to offer our insights, discuss some treatment models, examine how to organize communities to respond proactively, and develop the best ideas on how to build a culture that can better manage the challenges we face, now evidenced by what is happening to communities as a result of opioids.”
Wilson said that the Surgeon General has personal experience with the opioid crisis because he had a brother who was incarcerated for stealing $200 to support his addiction. He has pushed for making treatment more available and was able to convince then Gov. Mike Pence to implement a syringe exchange program — at least on a temporary basis to help stem the spread of HIV.
As an aside, Plumas County has a robust syringe exchange program with no restrictions, enabling the department to distribute 40,000 syringes last year.
And Wilson told the surgeon general that the program is a success precisely because there are no restrictions — as there are in other areas — that would prevent people from accessing the clean needles.
The small group on Monday blossomed into a gathering of at least 400 people on Tuesday for the annual summit.
Wilson said that attendees were assigned to tables and each one was tasked with coming up with a solution to the opioid crisis.
Reinert said that the table discussions were her favorite part of the summit and her group favored ending incarceration in favor of treatment options.
Barfjani said that her table discussed the need to incorporate drug treatment options as part of medical training. “We need to include it in the curriculum,” she said.
Back in Quincy, Schott summed up what the public health agency is trying to accomplish. “We are looking at the whole spectrum from prevention to treatment,” she said, explaining that means preventing people from becoming addicted; keeping them safe while they are using; guiding them toward treatment resources and improving their overall health.
Andrew Woodruff, the health agency’s director, said, “I’m so proud of our county and our entire team,” he said. “They are helping people well beyond our county.”