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Grant funds city effort in opioid crisis

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Grant funding in excess of $250,000 is in the city’s hands to address the opioid crisis that was declared a national public health emergency in 2017.

Springfield was notified this summer it had received the funds from a $1.36 million grant Missouri received through the U.S. Department of Labor. The total was shared among four workforce regions in the state impacted by opioid abuse and addiction, said Mary Ann Rojas, Springfield’s director of workforce development.

The Ozark Region Workforce Development Board, which covers Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk, Stone, Taney and Webster counties, was awarded $251,811 through the grant to fund Missouri Works Together. The pilot program aims to fund the employment of four people to assist those dealing with opioid abuse. A requirement for those hired is that they have been impacted by opioids, either personally or as a caregiver.

“The central part of the grant is to fund training of peer-support specialists that would actually be the intermediary to assist any individuals having issues with opioid addiction or had been affected by it in some way,” Rojas said. “We would be able to facilitate the salary for these peer-support specialists.”

Opioid-related deaths have been trending upward in the state, said Tasha Cook, Missouri Works Together program director. She said opioid-related overdose deaths in Missouri have been higher than the national average since 2006. In that year, the state’s rate was 7.1 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2016, Missouri had reached 15.9 per 100,000, compared to the national average of 13.3.

According to the CDC, opioids are the main driver of drug overdose deaths. Of the 70,237 drug overdose deaths that occurred nationwide in 2017, opioids were responsible for 68% of them. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports more than 130 people a day die from opioid-related drug overdoses.

Rojas said the opioid crisis is a contributor to issues in the workforce, as the drugs might affect one’s ability to retain a job or to get one in the first place. That’s in spite of low unemployment, she said.

In the Springfield metropolitan statistical area, which comprises Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk and Webster counties, the unemployment rate was at 3.2% in August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The statewide unemployment rate for August was 3.4%.

“We have a lot of people that want to go to work, but they have significant barriers that are keeping them from working,” Rojas said. “No. 1, of course, is a skills gap. But then, that is coupled with things like opioid addiction and other substance abuse issues. Plus, there’s mental health concerns – just a bevy of barriers that face many individuals that are not working right now.”

The selection process for the peer-support specialist positions is in progress, Cook said. Up to 2,000 hours per person will be funded through the grant, she added, and monies are set to expire in October 2020.

Part of the program involves teaming up with a local health care organization. Cook said she’s now in discussions with Burrell Behavioral Health officials to serve as a worksite. She provided the agency with paperwork in late September and is waiting to hear back.

“They were very positive,” she said of Burrell’s initial response. “They were totally on board with four peer-support specialists.”

Burrell spokesman Matt Lemmon confirmed the organization has been approached but said a decision is pending.

“We’ve been in discussions on the project but can’t go into details about it at this time,” he said.

Those selected for the program would go through a five-day training period to become a peer-support specialist certified by the state, Cook said. They would then be placed in temporary employment at the work site and job shadow those in the same positions. The employees would be evaluated every 90 days, she said.

If Burrell signs on, Cook said it would have the chance to hire the temporary employees at the conclusion of their 2,000 hours.

Cook said she’s passionate about seeing Missouri Works Together get off the ground, as she’s personally been affected by the opioid crisis. A family member has been battling addiction for more than a decade. She’s hopeful the program could extend beyond 2020, if funding is available or the impact of the specialists’ work to help the lives of opioid addicts can be demonstrated.

“If we could work with these individuals and help them get the help they need, we have a huge potential untapped workforce,” she said.

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