Initiative could bring more drug counselors to NWI

Therapist Matthew Lowery works with clients at Moraine House, a halfway house in Valparaiso for recovering addicts, in October. An initiative in central Indiana could eventually bring more drug counselors to the Region.

As opioid addiction continues to spread in Northwest Indiana and the state as a whole, the demand for drug counselors is intensifying.

But there just aren't enough of them to meet that ever increasing need.

A central Indiana collaborative believes it has found a solution that could one day come to the Region.

Workforce development group Ascend Indiana and Indianapolis-based Community Health Network are partnering to grow more substance abuse therapists in the capital city. The program was made possible with a $376,000 grant from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.

Ascend Indiana will spend the next 18 months designing the program,  then it will publicly release a report about the best way to develop more drug counselors.

"Any health care system can learn from what we find," said Jason Kloth, president and CEO of Ascend Indiana. "The idea is replicable and can be a model for other health care institutions around the state, and could have national implications as well." 

Indiana has the fourth-largest shortage of substance abuse providers in the nation, the Pew Charitable Trusts found. An Indiana Council of Community Mental Health Centers survey determined that the state has only half as many addiction counselors as it needs to meet demand. Meanwhile, the state has the 17th-highest rate of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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As Northwest Indiana continues to see an increase in opioid overdose deaths, addicts often have trouble accessing treatment when they do want to get clean.

The central Indiana program aims to produce up to 50 addiction counselors a year, based at Community Health Network, expanding coverage to 3,000 people annually.

Exactly how the program will work and the educational partners still have to be decided. But Ascend Indiana will look at such factors as the licensing process, insurance reimbursement and what skills employers are looking for.

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For instance, Kloth said, insurers often require licensed clinical social workers to have a master's degree and complete a 2,000 hour practicum. But the wages don't make up for those investments in time and tuition.

"There isn't, in my view, adequate financial incentives to pursue that career path to begin with," Kloth said.

A 2016 report on opioid addiction in Indiana by the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health identified three main solutions to the epidemic: better prevention, more harm reduction and an increase in the number of substance abuse specialists.

"Addiction unfortunately is a very complex chronic condition that affects us regardless of age, socioeconomic status and where we live. It has a devastating impact on families and communities," said Claire Fiddian-Green, president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. "Our hope is this new program will rapidly grow the number of high quality professionals who can support people to conquer addiction and lead productive lives."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.