Cecil County Drug Deaths Rise Again, New Stats Show; County Advances Private Rehab Hospital Aimed at Non-Local Patients

December 5, 2014


Drug overdose deaths in Cecil County continue to rise to record levels, according to newly released state data, but members of the county’s drug abuse council were not informed of the statistics at a Thursday meeting. At the same time, county agencies and officials have rapidly advanced a proposed private drug rehab hospital catering to non-local patients while similar proposals elsewhere have faced months of questions and local reviews.

Cecil Times reviewed newly-released data from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, buried in spreadsheets on the agency’s website, showing that in the second quarter of this year, drug overdose deaths in Cecil County continued to rise, with another 10 drug deaths reported. During the first quarter of the year, there were also 10 fatal drug overdoses, bringing the total for the first six months of the year to 20. (In contrast, drug deaths in the county for the first six months of 2013 were 13.)

At this pace, the county is on track for a record number of drug-related fatalities this year. The worst previous full-year tally was 28 in 2011—which on a population-adjusted basis gave Cecil County a death rate higher than Baltimore City. The new state report does not compute a population-adjusted death rate for the City and counties for the half-year data.

Baltimore has a population of 622,104 according to 2013 census reports—or more than six times Cecil County’s 101,913 population– and the city had 163 drug overdose deaths in the first half of the year. Cecil’s 20 deaths tally well below a population-proportionate comparison with Baltimore City. But Cecil County still ranked seventh in the state for fatal drug overdoses so far this year, and all the counties with higher fatality numbers also had substantially higher populations than Cecil.

State data show that heroin deaths continue to rise in Cecil County, with 12 fatalities so far this year. Prescription opioids accounted for 6 deaths, and 2 deaths were attributed to cocaine. The numbers also showed fatalities in combination with other substances, including 4 alcohol-related deaths and 1 fentanyl- related death. Fentanyl—which is often mixed with heroin by drug dealers—had not previously shown up in Cecil County but has been a growing problem, especially in Baltimore, according to state health data.

Asked about the newly-released state data after a Thursday meeting of the Cecil County Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council, Ken Collins—the county’s ‘drug czar’ and special adviser on drug issues to County Executive Tari Moore—said, “It’s a very serious epidemic right now.” Collins is actually a state employee, but has been given the drug “advisor” title by Moore.

Several members of the drug panel told Cecil Times they had not received any information from Collins or the drug council about the county’s overdose death statistics, either the first quarter or second quarter data.

Cecil Times reported exclusively on the first-quarter data and interviewed Collins and other health department officials at length on their efforts to address the issue. [SEE CECIL TIMES Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2014/08/new-state-data-show-cecil-county-on-track-for-record-drug-overdose-deaths-this-year-heroin-deaths-rise-sharply/ ]

Since then, county officials have touted their anti-drug efforts including a state-initiated pilot program in several counties, including Cecil, that goes back to review past overdose deaths to analyze what services might have prevented an overdose. In addition, Collins suggested that the training for citizens and emergency responders to administer Narcan to reverse the effects of a drug overdose would lower fatalities.

Training classes for citizens to administer the anti-overdose medication have resulted in several reported incidents of fatality prevention. In addition, the program yielded an email list that was used recently by a county Health Department official to solicit support from participants in the training program for a proposed private in-patient drug rehab hospital in Earleville that was seeking county zoning approval for a 150-bed facility, according to documents obtained by Cecil Times.

In addition, emails were sent by John Bennett, the volunteer chair of the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council, seeking support from other drug council members for the facility, which would be operated by a Philadelphia-area real estate developer, J. Brian O’Neill. The proposal by his new company, Recovery Centers of America (RCA), was first disclosed to the public, and County Council members, at the last meeting of the county’s Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council in late September. (Bennett also submitted a personal letter of support for the RCA facility to the county’s Planning Commission.)

RCA initially proposed a 50-bed facility in late September, but a few weeks later upped the capacity to 150-beds, including potential construction of two 7,000 square foot buildings on the site in addition to the existing manor house on the property, known as Bracebridge Hall.

[ SEE CECIL TIMES report on the initial proposal before the drug council here: http://ceciltimes.com/2014/09/two-drug-rehab-centers-proposed-for-same-rural-earleville-road-cecil-county-backs-treatment-options/
and also CECIL TIMES report on the tripled-sized proposal here: http://ceciltimes.com/2014/11/drug-addict-hospital-triples-size-of-proposeed-earleville-facility-cecil-county-planning-panel-to-hear-zoning-change-ambo-issues-ignored/ ]

The famed Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, CA, which has a long history of treating drug and alcohol addiction, has 160 beds. Union Hospital in Elkton, the local general hospital serving all Cecil County residents for over a century, has 122 beds, or substantially fewer beds than the new RCA drugs-only facility.

The Planning Commission unanimously approved a zoning special exception for the RCA hospital, located in a SAR (Southern Agricultural) zone, after a brief hearing. The county’s Board of Appeals also approved the application a week later.

At the planning board session, O’Neill was questioned about whether locating the hospital on the narrow, rural Grove Neck road could place a strain on local volunteer ambulance companies, to which he replied that would not be the case and that patients could be transported by the facility’s own private cars.

However, O’Neill has never operated an inpatient rehab hospital and did not specify how he knew there would be no demand on local emergency services.

In contrast with the speedy action in Cecil County, a small Massachusetts town has been asking a lot more questions since O’Neill proposed a similar project there in August. Several Wenham town zoning board meetings have been held to pose questions to the developer, including demands for financial data on the viability of the project and directives that the developer meet with town police and emergency services officials to assess the impact on public safety in the community. The meetings were also televised for the public on a local public access cable channel.

At a September hearing, as reported by the Beverly Citizen, questions about security were raised and RCA officials said that if patients became violent or unruly, they would be “handled on site or by local police.” Anthony Feeherry, a member of the local Zoning Board of Appeals, said the panel’s “biggest concern is financial viability” of the operation.

During Thursday’s meeting of the Cecil County drug council, Bennett stated that Union Hospital looked at establishing a local in-patient addiction treatment program but concluded that “the numbers did not work” for the respected local hospital to undertake such a program because it would “take some subsidy” to “make the numbers work financially.”

RCA is seeking to develop at least 11 in-patient rehab facilities, from New England to the Washington, D.C. area, as part of the start-up company’s quest to build a national “brand name” for addiction treatment in luxurious surroundings. Representatives of the developer told Cecil Times in September that RCA would be “85 percent” owned by O’Neill from his own funds. O’Neill has made a career of re-developing contaminated “brownfields” sites for shopping centers, offices and apartment developments. He has also had some well-publicized clashes with banks that called in loans on some of his projects.

Officials of RCA have said that a standard 30-day stay at the Earleville facility could cost up to $30,000, with private insurance or a patient’s personal funds paying the cost. RCA documents presented in September suggest that the new federal Affordable Care Act’s mandate for coverage of addiction treatment would open up a new avenue for patients to obtain treatment, although out-of-pocket costs even for insured patients could total nearly $7,000.

Such costs are beyond the pockets of most Cecil County residents, and RCA officials have said their business plan calls for drawing patients from a two-hour drive time from Earleville. But the for-profit facility would make some “scholarships” available for local residents, RCA officials said.

RCA’s analysis of the Affordable Care Act’s impact on addiction treatment is far different from that of the chief executive of the respected, non-profit Hazleden Foundation in Minnesota, a pioneering drug treatment hospital that recently merged with the non-profit Betty Ford Center.

Mark Mishek, the Hazleden chief executive and a recovering alcoholic himself, told the Los Angeles Times in March that the federal law actually favors out-patient treatment over in-patient hospitalization in what has become a booming $35 billion a year business of addiction treatment.

Mishek said that 90 percent of patients seek out-patient treatment since it is less disruptive to their work and personal lives than spending a month or more in a hospital, and that insurers—now faced with a mandate to provide some coverage for addiction treatment– would favor cheaper out-patient care. As a result, the Betty Ford Center is now looking to open up multiple brand-name outpatient treatment centers in California, Texas, and Arizona.

Meanwhile, in addition to its re-zoning/exception requests, the proposed RCA in-patient hospital in Cecil County has requested an amendment to the pending new master water and sewer plan to give the site “W-2” priority for community water services not now allowed by the master plan.

The updated master plan, now pending before the Cecil County Council, won approval from the Planning Commission – but without the RCA-proposed amendment. The water/sewer plan was formally introduced before the County Council on Tuesday and a public hearing and legislative session vote on its approval—and any amendments– are scheduled for January.

County Planning Director Eric Sennstrom told Cecil Times that RCA could come back to the county for an amendment to the master water/sewer plan in the future as its plans advance, even if the County Council does not give RCA its requested amendment to the master plan right now.

Such a wait-and-see approach would give county officials and the County Council more time to review the RCA project and ask questions about its viability and potential impact on the southern Cecil County community.

The RCA proposal also requires a special approval from the state Critical Areas Commission, since part of the site is adjacent to tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, and will also need approval of water services and on-site septic services for the hospital by the local Health Department (which is officially a state agency but partially funded by Cecil County government.)

However, some local Health Department officials have already expressed support for the RCA hospital. An email obtained by Cecil Times shows that Karl Webner, who runs the Overdose Prevention Program for the local Health Department, solicited support for the RCA zoning proposal from citizens who had taken the Narcan training program and urged them to send emails and letters to the Planning Commission to support the RCA zoning exception proposal.

However, other emails obtained by Cecil Times indicated that other Health Department officials had “environmental concerns” about the RCA proposal and would “abstain” from supporting the project.

In addition, emails obtained by Cecil Times show that Bennett—the chair of the county’s Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council, a panel that is supposed to review and advise on drug addiction issues and programs—urged fellow members of the drug council to voice support of the RCA proposal to county planning and zoning bodies. And he did so at the “request” of Cecil County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5), according to the email, which added that Hodge had contacted Bennett to say that letters and emails in support of the RCA proposal to the planning board would be “very helpful.” Furthermore, the email stated, Hodge claimed that it was important to get pro-RCA comments to the planning/zoning panel “to counter the expected NIMBY reactions” (not in my backyard) against RCA.

Hodge told Cecil Times that he was not actually endorsing the RCA rehab hospital and there might have been a misinterpretation of his comments to Bennett. Hodge said he was only responding to calls from constituents who had decided to support RCA and asked how they might express such support—and he told them they could write to the planning commission to voice their views.

Hodge said he has not made a final decision on the RCA facility and its requests for county regulatory changes to advance its project.

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5 Responses to Cecil County Drug Deaths Rise Again, New Stats Show; County Advances Private Rehab Hospital Aimed at Non-Local Patients

  1. Jeannette H on December 8, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    As I indicated in a reply to your original article on this drug rehab facility, the south end of Cecil County has very limited resources for police and emergency services. But of course Hodge, wouldn’t comprehend that this could be a serious issue should there be an emergency at a facility such as described. Residents on the south side of the canal pay the same taxes for fewer services and get the least representation on these County issues.

    Not only do we have to deal with the well water and dump site issue, now we are going to have to deal with drug and alcohol addicts. Maybe Hodge should sell them a piece of property behind his home. We have enough drug and alcohol issues, so why are we allowing more to come into our county.

    These types of programs are NOT as successful as everyone wants us to believe. But, they certainly are lucrative for the stockholders.

  2. Mike R on December 9, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Another slap in the face for the southern part of Cecil County. The southern area of Cecil Co is where all the glitter and gold is to attract tourists and tourist type businesses, certainly NOT drug and alcohol addicts. These kind of facilities should be not be kept in this area… It really is time for additional changes in the governing board of this County. Hodge, 2016 can’t come soon enough so we can get you out of office.

  3. John Cole on December 10, 2014 at 6:59 am

    I am surprised at the negativity shown on this issue. Have any of you driven down Country Club Road in Havre de Grace, where Fr. Martin Ashley’s clinic exists? In the many years I lived in Havre de Grace, I never heard ONE complaint related to the clinic.

    You cry about receiving less from the County Government, but do little to improve your situation. Turning down the clinic is tantamount to refusing employment in your area. Consequently, you limit the amount of money available to the County, and shoot yourself in the foot.

    Please do some research on how these establishments operate, rather than producing a knee-jerk reaction.

    • Linda W on December 11, 2014 at 10:39 am

      If Father Martin’s operated this new facility I don’t think there would be as much concern or “negativity.” Father Martin’s has been around a long time and has a documented record of success and has been a good partner with the local community.

      But this out of state real estate man has never run a hospital before and instead of focusing on setting up one place and making it the best it can be, he is running around the east coast to buy real estate for a chain of rehabs. Why should we trust that he will make good on his promises of a few scholarships for local people? Nothing in writing to bind him to it.

    • Mike R on December 11, 2014 at 10:44 am

      This is not a knee jerk reaction to a very serious lack of service provided to the southern part of our county. There are many other locations within Cecil County, north of the canal that can house this type of drug and alcohol facility. An area that has adequate resources along the developmental corridor would certainly be more palatable than to stress an already under funded area below the canal. It’s always easy to dump on a less vocal and less populated section of the county. I think we have had enough “dumping”.

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