WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A substance abuse treatment center that led to packed city council meetings and a lawsuit is once again raising concern — but this time with one of the very agencies that made it happen.
According to emails obtained by WECT, Trillium Health Resources has decided to go with a Kentucky-based firm to run The Healing Place, which is set to be developed on Medical Center Drive, rather than Wilmington-based Coastal Horizons Center.
In a letter to County Manager Chris Coudriet dated May 8, Trillium CEO Leza Wainwright said the company had decided to contract with The Healing Place of Louisville, Kentucky, the inspiration for the Wilmington facility, for day to day operations.
“We can think of no better outcome for the people to be served in this needed facility in New Hanover County than to have it be operated and administered by the original developer of the model that has operated the program successfully for the past 33 years,” the letter reads.
However, the news came as a shock to management and board members of Coastal Horizons, who said that they were not notified until May 13, and that was only through a “courtesy” phone call from someone at the county.
“That’s the first that we’d heard of the county or Trillium making any decision,” said Coastal Horizons board chair Andy Jones. “Until that point we believed that Coastal Horizons was going to be the operator of the Healing Place in New Hanover County, consistent with the county and Trilliums’ public and private representations.”
Coudriet emailed county commission members and members of the county executive leadership team with the news on May 11, attaching the letter he received from Trillium, as well as a letter from Wainwright addressed to Coastal Horizons’ CEO Margaret Stargell.
That letter, dated May 11, thanked Stargell and Coastal Horizons for “help with the challenges Trillium Health Resources and New Hanover County faced in securing the Special Use Permit from the City of Wilmington,” needed to develop the facility.
Wainwright specifically mentions Coastal Horizons and other providers “coming out and publically [sic] rebutting the stigmatizing disinformation campaign” from opponents of the special use permit.
The letter does not mention anything about Trillium moving forward with the Kentucky firm.
That assistance, Jones said, is a major reason Coastal Horizons was alarmed to learn they would not be running the new facility.
“Our goodwill in the community was expressly used as a reason why those who were objecting to the facility on Medical Center Drive could be sure that a good steward of community funds and a good operator in this area in the community would be the one running the facility,” he said.
Opposition to the project was significant — meetings were standing-room-only, and neighbors of the center filed a lawsuit to attempt to stop it.
Jones explained that while there was no contract signed, it was clear through Trillium’s public discussion as well as internal dialogue that Coastal Horizons was the intended operator.
In fact, on the night Wilmington City Council approved the special use permit, Executive Vice President of Trillium Health Services Cindy Ehlers said as much.
“The next step for our team is to continue to negotiate with Coastal Horizons. They are our selected provider to operate this facility,” Ehlers said.
Jones said the last communication his organization had with Trillium or the county regarding the Healing Place was some time in February, when those negotiations were still ongoing.
He said they had attributed the lack of communication to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but said he now feels the process has not been transparent, both on the part of Trillium and New Hanover County leadership.
A spokesperson for the county said they were surprised by the news as well, but that ultimately it is up to Trillium.
“While the county did originally think the operator for the facility would be Coastal Horizons — the county, administratively, recognizes that the agreement between the county and Trillium calls for Trillium to establish the day to day operator for this facility. That was, ultimately, Trillium’s decision to make; and unless directed otherwise, the county will continue to move forward.”
But Jones claims indications by Coudriet that the county had no ability to control who operates the facility are unfounded, because it was Coastal Horizons’ understanding that the county had a say.
The county disputes this, saying: “They are the Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME-MCO) for our region, the land is effectively Trillium’s, and the operating support is contingent on Trillium using its budget for this operation as well as other resources.”
In response, a spokesperson for Trillium sent the following statement:
“From the first conversation that Trillium and New Hanover County leadership had about creating a long-term recovery program for people dealing with substance use disorders, we discussed replicating The Healing Place model. The Healing Place reports about 75% of alumni still in recovery one year after completing their program, as compared to the national average of around 50%. This unique social model recovery program has proven extraordinary success in helping people achieve recovery from substance use disorders for more than 40 years. We value our partnership with Coastal Horizons and have contracts with them to provide many services for members across our region. While they were among the potential providers to operate the site on Medical Center Drive, Trillium ultimately decided to contract with The Healing Place of Louisville, KY, the original developer of this highly successful model.”
In response to concerns about transparency and the overall change, the county said the Kentucky firm was always in the mix.
County Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman responded to the issue saying she is disappointed Coastal Horizons was not selected, but that she still supports the development of the facility.
“I believe that building the facility and having this type of treatment option available for anyone who needs it is the overarching goal,” she said. “That is my focus, because I know how critical the need is and how life changing this will be for men and women in our region.”
Ultimately, Jones said Coastal Horizons also still believes there should be a substance abuse treatment center in Wilmington — they just think the original plan as presented to the community should be honored.
“There’s no question that a substance use disorder treatment facility in New Hanover County is going to go a long way to helping us address the opioid crisis,” he said. “However, the process has been incredibly flawed and it is a serious concern of Coastal and the board, if what appears to have happened actually is the case, and that is Coastal’s goodwill was used for the purpose of approving a special use permit, and then it was not given the opportunity to meaningfully engage in any substantive contract negotiations, that’s a concern to us, and I would imagine, it would be a serious concern for the community.”
Editor’s Note: Margaret Stargell, CEO of Coastal Horizons, is the sister of WECT News anchor Frances Weller.