As opioid deaths continue to soar in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has changed leadership at the state’s command center dealing with the crisis.
Former Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, who lost a re-election bid in November, will become the command center’s new director, replacing Clay Stamp, Hogan announced Wednesday.
Stamp will return to his prior position as an emergency director in Talbot County, according to Hogan’s office.
“I know that Steve’s first-hand experience as county executive, including the local programs he championed to help fight this crisis, will serve our state well as we continue working to save the lives of Marylanders every day,” Hogan said in a statement.
The Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center coordinates anti-opioid actions across various levels of government and analyzes data on drug use and deaths.
The change in leadership comes as Maryland, like many other states, has struggled to combat heroin and other opioids, including the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Federal health officials announced Wednesday that fentanyl has overtaken heroin as the deadliest drug in America. And federal prosecutors in Baltimore announced plans to review every fentanyl-related arrest in the city with an eye toward taking more of those cases to federal court, where penalties are stiffer.
Schuh said he’s humbled that the governor picked him to lead Maryland’s fight against opioids.
“Opioid addiction is the biggest health and public safety challenge we face in Maryland — over 2,000 lives lost last year alone,” Schuh said.
The Baltimore Sun reported this fall that despite Hogan’s efforts — declaring a state of emergency, creating the command center, spending $10 million more annually — overdoses and deaths have risen at alarming rates.
When Hogan first ran for governor in 2014, the state experienced 888 opioid-related overdose deaths that year, which he called “a major disaster.” In the first six months of 2018 alone, the state had 1,185 opioid-related deaths — the majority of them from fentanyl.
Schuh’s predecessor Stamp acknowledged to The Sun that the state’s initial steps against heroin and prescription opioids faltered when fentanyl use — and deaths — surged.
Schuh called the opioid epidemic a major challenge but expressed optimism that the state could soon turn a corner.
“This is going to be many years to resolve and ultimately to win,” Schuh said. “But I believe we are going to win this.”
Schuh said he believes that without the steps taken under Hogan, the epidemic would be even worse. “I do think we are approaching the beginning of the beginning of the end.”
Some experts and advocates have said the state could to more to expand treatment options for people addicted to opioids, including those in Maryland’s jails and prisons. Others have recommended strengthening the state’s prescription drug monitoring program so that health officials can notify law enforcement about doctors who over-prescribe.
Schuh said before committing to any changes or new programs, he will meet with local leaders to learn what their needs are, what’s working and what’s not working. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” he said.
He said he would explore whether some of his initiatives in Anne Arundel County might work in other communities.
Under his leadership, the county launched Safe Stations, a program that allows addicts seeking treatment to get assistance at any county fire and police station around the clock. Members of the county’s mobile crisis team assess the individuals and connect them with treatment options.
The county’s fire stations display how many overdoses and deaths are due to opioids, and the county regularly releases data on overdoses on social media. A county team also made “Not My Child” presentations at local schools and churches to educate the community about the dangers of opioids.
Some who work in addiction recovery are hopeful that Schuh will come to the position with an open mind.
Lorece Edwards, a public health professor at Morgan State University, said Schuh needs to pay attention to needs in Baltimore, which may require different strategies than what has worked in suburbs like Anne Arundel County.
Edwards is director of the federally funded Get Smart West Baltimore Drug Free Community Coalition. She said too often, resources have gone to the counties instead of the city.
Her message to Schuh: “Please, talk to the people in Baltimore as you are beginning to develop a strategic plan.”
Adrienne Breidenstine, a spokeswoman for Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore, which administers drug treatment spending in the city, also expressed a desire for Schuh to tailor the state’s response on a community-by-community basis.
“I hope he comes in and really listens to the local jurisdictions and recognizes we are all different,” she said. “What we need in Baltimore City may be different than the approaches that work in Anne Arundel or Allegany counties.”
Schuh, a Republican, lost a re-election bid this fall to Democrat Steuart Pittman. He starts as opioid command center director on Dec. 19 and will make a $160,000 annual salary.
Schuh is the second former county executive to be appointed to a state position by Hogan this month. Allan Kittleman, a Republican who lost a re-election bid in Howard County, was appointed to a $151,000 job as a member of the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission. Kittleman had previously worked as a workers’ compensation lawyer.