COAST Interview with Dan Hicks, Prevention Services Manager
COAST began as a collaboration of Agency Leads from across the County, including Public Health, Emergency Medical Services, Sheriff’s Office, Medical Examiner’s Office, and the Health Care Agency’s Ambulatory Care.
Tell us about your educational and work background.
Dan: My work in Prevention started decades ago after graduating from Princeton and moving to Southern California. I thought I'd get some experience as a counselor on the way to an advanced degree in clinical psychology. I was working an internship at Capistrano by the Sea Psychiatric Hospital, when I began to realize how economic and social forces were shaping what drugs were causing so much trouble, common themes about how clients got started with abuse, and who was coming in for treatment with insurance coverage (and also who was not). I decided to take a step back, asking myself if I really wanted to "keep pulling people out of the deep water, or go upstream and keep them from falling in."
I studied with experts from UC Berkeley and UCLA, and took a position funded by the US Dept. of Education focused on alcohol and drug prevention for commuter college students. My direction completely changed. I started working on policies with the City of Irvine, the County of Orange, and then the State Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, and I've been in prevention work ever since.
When did you start with Ventura County Behavioral Health?
Dan: I actually came to VCBH by way of San Diego, working at the Institute for Public Strategies. Picked to lead the Ventura office, I started as a contracted technical assistance provider to community coalitions concerned with underage drinking, impaired driving, and a wide range of drug-related problems. Soon I was asked to lead a grant-funded effort to reduce alcohol-related problems in both retail and social settings countywide. I accepted a fixed-term position as a County employee in 2005. I've moved up a few ranks, but my passion remains prevention for Ventura County.
How did COAST get started?
Dan: Around 2010, we had implemented some impressive policies and programs to reduce underage and binge drinking in Ventura County, but we started to see big changes in the scale and severity of prescription drug misuse. We didn't fully realize it then, but the Opioid Crisis was already well underway. There was liberal pain-killer prescribing, limited consequences for "dirty doctors," and rising levels of heroin use. We teamed up with the Sheriff's Office like never before to address opioid availability and enforcement, forming the Prescription Drug Workgroup. This ultimately became our much larger Opioid and Illicit Drug Workgroup.
Realizing we didn’t have a centralized dashboard for inter-departmental efforts, and building years of collaboration, we pursued Department of Justice funding and the County Opioid Abuse Suppression Taskforce (COAST) was born. It initially launched as a three-year grant, but it continues to expand even after funding.
What have some of the challenges been?
Dan: The two biggest challenges have been 1) the dynamic nature of the crisis, and 2) the complications of the COVID 19 pandemic. COAST multi-agency efforts began in earnest just as fentanyl was displacing a lot of heroin use and getting added into the wider drug supply. That was, and still is, a major challenge. We’ve entered the synthetic age, and it is so, so much easier for people who use a drug to accidentally overdose. Of course, this was hugely compounded by a pandemic. But County leadership recognized overdose prevention and opioid suppression as essential services, and we’ve really adapted in huge ways-- our community messaging, engagement and training—all have changed to meet growing needs.
What value do our contractors bring to the work that we do?
Dan: I think it’s safe to say that we could not have achieved everything we have—including more than 3,000 documented overdose reversals—without the dedicated work of our contractors. Clearly there is passion and purpose behind the work of agencies who are in the business protecting our communities and saving lives. If people want proof, just take a look at www.VenturaCountyResponds.org !