SEK gets $1M grant to fight opioids

Thrive Allen County announced the $1 million, three-year grant to help six Southeast Kansas counties fight opioid misuse. It will allow Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center to hire a chemical dependency case manager. It also will increase transportation options and help pay for treatment for those who are uninsured or underinsured, among other programs.

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August 19, 2021 - 9:44 AM

Thrive Allen County staff discuss a $1 million federal grant they secured to help six counties in Southeast Kansas provide programs to address opioid misuse. From left, Deputy Director Jessica Thompson, CEO Lisse Regher and Director of Communications Kate Schroeder. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

To fight the ongoing opioid crisis — the addiction to high-powered prescription painkillers — a Southeast Kansas coalition will work to remove the barriers that keep someone from treatment.

In large part, that translates to transportation, helping someone get to treatment or a job.

It could also mean help paying for counseling and treatment programs. 

A $1 million federal grant will help area counties with those issues and more over the next three years. 

Thrive Allen County announced it has received a federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. 

The Rural Communities Opioid Response Program grant will provide about $333,000 a year to address opioid misuse in Allen, Wilson, Woodson, Coffey, Bourbon and Neosho counties. It will begin Sept. 1.

It is the largest grant in Thrive’s history, and will allow them to hire a Rural Health Coordinator to oversee the program.

It also will allow Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center to hire a chemical dependency case manager. 

The grant includes several other important aspects and relies on the cooperation of numerous entities involved in addressing substance misuse.

In fact, the groundwork for the grant was laid more than three years ago. 

The Southeast Kansas Substance Misuse Coalition, representing those same six counties, was formed three years ago as part of a different grant. It includes about 25 representatives including police, judges, those in health care, pharmacies, treatment centers, schools, non-profit groups, churches and individuals.

The coalition has examined the opioid crisis in Southeast Kansas and proposed various ways to address prevention, treatment and recovery.

This new grant will allow the coalition to put their plans into action.

For example, the coalition and Thrive’s work with the 31st Judicial District’s Drug Court found that many who fail or struggle with the program have transportation problems that make it difficult to meet the terms of their agreements. They aren’t able to find a way to work and can’t maintain a steady job. They don’t have a way to travel to counseling appointments.

Thrive has recently introduced a new transportation program, working with Allen County, to provide free rides for all county residents. Often, those rides are used to take someone to doctor’s appointments but can be used for a variety of needs. 

Thrive representatives, including CEO Lisse Regher and Jessica Thompson, provided statistics for the two existing transportation programs. One is offered by the county for specific uses, and one by Thrive for non-emergency services. In May, the two programs had a combined 129 passengers and 251 trips. In June, there were 220 passengers and 434 trips. In July, there were 269 passengers and 554 trips.

“There is a need. Every month it grows,” Regher said. “There is a large portion of our residents who lack access to transportation. Thrive is able to provide a safety net.”

But a stigma remains when it comes to issues surrounding substance misuse, such as transportation to a treatment program, she added. Many also lack a driver’s license, or cannot afford a reliable vehicle. 

“It’s a darker area for people to try and come out of,” Regher said. “We want to break down that barrier to make sure that they have more avenues to be successful.”

Conversations with community groups also found that health insurance and treatment costs can prevent someone from seeking help with opioid misuse. They quit attending programs because they can’t afford them. They may lack health insurance entirely, or cannot afford the co-pay.

The grant includes a “payor of last resort” program, which will pay health care providers directly for people who need opioid misuse treatment but are uninsured or underinsured.

The program also will add a chemical dependency case manager at SEKMHC, as the SEK region has only two physicians who provide specialized care for opioid misuse treatment. 

“Part of the reason we were successful in this grant is because we met with SEKMHC and we asked the Drug Court, what are your needs?” Thompson explained. 

The SEK region lacks a lot of statistics about the opioid crisis, Thompson said, but she cited state health sources that found 9,163 people were screened for substance misuse in the six-county area between 2016 and 2019. Kansas has seen an increase in opioid use of 112% over the past 10 years, particularly for caucasians between the ages of 25 and 64. Accidental drug overdoses have increased by 585%.

“This is something that could very positively impact people’s lives. Not just the person who is suffering from opioid misuse, but their friends and family,” Regher said.

“It has a ripple effect,” Thompson added. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only complicated the problem, Regher said. 

“There hasn’t been a lot of positive movement, and in fact it has gone backwards because people are less likely to go to the doctor right now. They’re less likely to seek treatment. They’re more likely to suffer from depression and social isolation.

“If you are trying to get out of over-utilizing a substance or misusing it, COVID was not a good time for that. It did create a lot more barriers for people who were trying to become healthier.”

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