matt meyer

Spend $5 billion on the opioid epidemic and not a border wall--that's one local elected leader's message for President Donald Trump.

"This is not some political trolling; it's not some Pro-Trump, anti-Trump, it's about what we're seeing on the ground here, and making sure that our first responders have the resources they need to truly save lives," said County Executive Matthew Meyer in his op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Meyer said the county's Hero Help program--initiated under his predecessor Tom Gordon--has aided hundreds of Delawareans struggling with substance abuse issues. The program offers substance use treatment in lieu of arrest.

"The program has been doing wonders here in our community, numbers off the charts," Meyer told WDEL's Rick Jensen Show. "It's absolutely critical."

But coming off a year of record-high drug overdoses in Delaware with 345 deaths, Hero Help is now at risk after losing out on $240,000 in federal funding.

"The federal government came in and provided funding for a year for this; we then applied several months ago for the funding to be renewed, and to our surprise, they told us they didn't have sufficient funds to renew the program," said Meyer. "The program really only exists today because of the contributions of county taxpayers and the commitment of County Council--who don't do too many things unanimously. Unanimously, they support this program."

Since the program's inception in 2016, it's aimed to get to the root causes of addiction and stop the vicious cycle of overdose and arrest.

"We often will come in contact with individuals for some lower-level crimes that we know eventually will go to nowhere. As police, we've been getting good at making arrests, collecting drugs and evidence, and filling up evidence lockers...but we're really a broken model of trying to fix, get to the root of the problem," said Lt. Jake Andrews with New Castle County Police.

The partnership between New Castle County Police, the state, and the Delaware Department of Justice provides free treatment, regardless of a person's insurance status.

"We take individuals who are homeless and we try to address a lot of the social mitigating factors on top of the addiction. So we will streamline people into treatment for their addiction. We understand the concurrence of mental health issues--so we try to get them the mental health attention that they need," said the program's manager Dan Maas.

Meyer called it "pre-arrest criminal justice reform" over post-duress help, which is typically more widely available. The county's initiatives include Hero Help, as well as the Police Connections Alliance, which includes mental health professionals on patrol with officers.

"When officers go out and encounter problems, they can identify right then and there that--wait a second, yes, there's theft, yes there's issues that need to be dealt with through the criminal justice system, but unless we want a revolving door of this person going in and out...let's get to the root of this problem right now without having to send someone to jail and spend six years in jail. Let's try to deal with it right now."

Delawareans who need help can also call 302.395.8171 or show up at the police department to help navigate the daunting criminal justice system and substance abuse treatment that's available.

"You can come in 24/7 and say, 'Hey I need help; I don't have any resources, I've burned through bridges..and I just need some help,' and we will get you a ride, drive you over to the detox [center] and get you checked in," said Lt. Andrews. "If you had a simple traffic capias, failure to pay for a ticket or something along those lines, court can be a very scary place for some people. We can help explain to them, 'Let's go take care of this capias, pay your fine, then we can get you into treatment.'"

The program promotes long-term health outcomes and self-sustained recovery.

"Part of that is the accountability aspect, if people do have charges, we don't make any promises, however, if they are compliant with their treatment plan--and we get weekly treatment progress reports from all the providers that we use, and if they are complaint, we will, the police department will advocate for them with the [Delaware] Department of Justice," said Maas.

While relapse can often be a part of recovery, the program tracks individuals' levels of criminal recidivism.

"Even if somebody does commit another crime, we'll still try to deal with their health issues. The key is keeping people alive here," said Maas.

The life-saving Hero Help program has helped 233 Delawareans over the past year with 71 currently engaged in programming, according to county officials. Of the 233 Delawareans enrolled, Meyer said more than half have self-presented to request the help. Hundreds more requested help, but didn't pass the screening process.

The program includes wraparound supports for family members and loved ones of those dealing with addiction issues, including the training and safe use and storage of NARCAN--an overdose-reversing antidote--or counseling referrals.

Meyer said he'll work with the state and council to ensure funding for the program continues somehow, even with the federal loss of funds.

"There's this growing opioid epidemic, that the number of NARCAN administrations is growing by double-digit percentages ever year; the number of overdose deaths is growing by double-digit percentages every year in pretty much every county across the country, and local officials like myself are struggling to find the resources to make sure that programs like Hero Help are appropriately resourced."

The county executive told WDEL he wasn't certain whether the size of the county or the state played into the funding loss.

"I saw the Office of National Drug Control Policy's response...and the response we got back was basically there were a lot of great programs and we couldn't fund them all," said Meyer. "Ten billion, $7 billion, $3 billion...but if we can't find $240,000 for a program like this, we're not doing something right."