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We Can Do Better



Linda Stansberry should be commended for writing the article "Can Humboldt County Solve Addiction?" (Sept. 24). It is one of the most informative, relevant and insightful investigative pieces the Journal has printed in the last decade and should be mandatory reading for our local policy makers. It is a detailed description of a network of social and health service providers that, while created with the best of intentions, delivers a fraction of the benefits that a more effective system could with the same resources.

A stark takeaway from the article is that what could be achieved with existing resources is severely constrained by decades of policy and bureaucratic overlays in the form of operational structure, defined responsibilities, rules and regulations. They impose a slew of constraints on public and nonprofit agencies, removing virtually all flexibility, severely limiting effective collaboration and preventing integration. It is obvious we could do much better given a different system.

As Linda's article convincingly shows, we need a system designed around a needs-driven approach, not the top-down, inefficient system we have been forced to live with.

If something is to change substantially for the better, policymakers will need a credible, popularly supported blueprint for how to do the job better with the same resources, achievable goals and an estimate of what additional resources might be needed to attain even higher treatment success targets.

Do we, the public, remain complacent as our elected officials continue to passively accept the limitations of the status quo and make tiny improvements at the margins? Or do we encourage them to assume a proactive leadership role by taking advantage of local expertise and directing it toward building a better conceptual system design from the bottom up?

This seems to be one of those situations where a short-term investment of resources could deliver substantial and ongoing long-term benefits.

I'd like to hear what our officials consider to be the upsides and downsides to convening a blue ribbon panel of local service providers and experts to do the following: First, define both the full spectrum of treatment service needs that currently exist and how best to deliver treatment to those who need it; second, design a new, comprehensive, process-and-procedurally simplified, better integrated and more flexible structure that would take full advantage of collaborative opportunities and flexibility in implementation; and third, work with local officials, and state and federal representatives, to craft a package of proposed policy changes that would be needed to allow the new system to be built and sustained.

This obviously would be an overly ambitious and unrealistic undertaking if it were intended to be a one-off. But the product of this comprehensive bottom-up effort may look so good to policymakers that they could decide to allocate the state and federal funding needed to put it in place, monitor and evaluate it as a county-scale system pilot project that could potentially be replicated in many other rural areas.

It is time to move the local policy focus away from solely trying to make a hamstrung treatment system work, and to begin relying on those in our community with the knowledge, experience and skills to devise a system that will not only meet our local needs, but provide a model for other California counties and municipalities.

As a taxpayer, I have no problem with paying my share of the short-term costs for fixing the problems that ensure our current treatment system has gaps and redundancies, preventing it from even coming close to meeting current and future service needs. After all, it is us taxpayers who will be paying the long-term costs of maintaining the status quo.

By working together imaginatively and creatively, wouldn't it be possible for a collaboration of Humboldt County's treatment community to design the ideal system? Local officials and rural policy advocates could play a leadership role in bringing together a coalition of rural counties and cities to put forth a popularly supported proposal that provides both a policy and implementation blueprint for how to substantially improve the return on our current investments of federal and state funding.

One last question to consider: If we give our dedicated and hardworking alcohol and drug service providers an improved system, wouldn't a side benefit be a significant reduction in homelessness?

Jud Ellinwood, a retired fisheries conservationist and more-than-30-year resident of Humboldt County, lives in Eureka.

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