News & Updates Grantee Spotlight

Grantee Spotlight: Putting People with Lived Experience at the Forefront of Recovery

September 24, 2020

Ballad Health, a health system serving 29 counties in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, has been working to reduce the high rates of opioid use disorder in its Appalachian region. A key part of its strategy is giving people in recovery the opportunity to help others through its PEERhelp Warmline, which links people to treatment programs, recovery meetings, and organizations that can provide help with food, clothing, and shelter.

To manage its PEERhelp Warmline and other recovery supports, in 2019 Ballad Health hired Jason Pritchard, a certified peer recovery specialist (CPRS) in recovery from 16 years of addiction. Pritchard grew up in a poor family; family members sold drugs to supplement their income. Though he earned a college degree and landed a good job, injuries from multiple car accidents gave him access to pain pills and eventually led to drug abuse and distribution. Pritchard served five years in prison, where he got sober and trained to become a CPRS.

In July, FORE provided funding to Ballad Health to expand its recovery services and ensure access to them during the pandemic. Pritchard and his colleague, Casey Carringer, director of clinical engagement, are training a cadre of peer recovery specialists, expanding the hours of the Warmline, and offering more virtual recovery support meetings, increasing the latter from three per week to two a day. Ballad Health also plans to extend its partnerships with jails to help inmates access virtual supports. We asked Carringer and Pritchard about their work.

Casey, it was your idea to hire Jason. Why was it important to you to involve people with firsthand experience with addiction in shaping Ballad Health’s treatment and recovery services?
Carringer: Our system realized we weren’t the experts and that to build effective programs, we really needed the advice of people who had lived the disease of addiction and come through the other side. The solution wasn’t going to come from an organization. This really dawned on me when I realized just how often I was calling my brother for advice. He is in recovery from addiction and I was constantly asking him, “What do you think about this idea? What about that?” I also knew in my heart it was the right thing to do to create job opportunities that allowed people with felony records and past substance abuse to find meaningful work. The realization occurred that if we are really committed to improving the health of the region as a system, we need to address social needs as well. Employment can change the trajectory of someone’s life and it’s an opportunity to turn a story of sadness and addiction into a story of success and inspiration.

How was the idea received?
Carringer: There was a lot of support for it. There’s hardly anyone in this region who is unaffected by the opioid crisis. My colleagues and I saw the value of having someone like Jason to bridge gaps between those in recovery and treatment and employment. Since hiring Jason, we have hired two more individuals in long-term recovery and plan to hire six more. Ballad Health recognizes that their background is an asset and a requirement for the position and  values what they bring to our team. The community’s reaction has been phenomenal as well. So many people have come forward to say, “I know that you work in this space and you’re passionate about it. I am in recovery or I have a daughter that is.” By sharing our stories and talking about it, we’re helping to break down the stigma. We’ve found everyone is ready for a change.

Jason, your story is a remarkable one of resilience. What helped you recover?
Pritchard: It’s a combination of my faith and a desire to provide hope to a group that can feel hopeless at times. I know the shame, the pain, and the isolation that come with addiction. When I was in prison, I took advantage of every class and recovery program there was. I began volunteering and when I left prison, I created a war plan, listing who to call and what job fairs to attend. I was fortunate that my church offered a recovery program. The curriculum and the support they surrounded me with really helped. They also gave me a chance to tell my story once they saw my words really matched my actions. I’ve spoken in prisons and taught anger management classes. My message is you don’t have to live this way. You can have something better.

Some people who struggle with addiction are having a harder time during the pandemic because of the social isolation and the difficulty of accessing recovery supports. What are you seeing in your region, and how will the funding from FORE help?
Pritchard: Calls to the Warmline are up and we have heard from law enforcement and harm reduction programs that overdoses and drug use are too. I think the isolation is incredibly hard on people in recovery because they feel better by helping others. The FORE funding will allow us to create opportunities by training more people to become peer recovery specialists. We put out a call and received 90 applications for 12 trainee positions. The state of Virginia is allowing us to increase the number to 14. We’ve also seen people volunteer to help with the virtual recovery meetings. There’s just so much potential for this program to grow.

Carringer: The overwhelming response is an indicator Ballad Health is heading in the right direction and we’re so thankful for the funding to expand. One of the challenges locally is the shortage of certified peer recovery specialists. The pandemic has only made it worse because it’s been hard for people in training to meet the required 500 hours of volunteer or paid experience. By staffing the Warmline, they will be able to do so. The funding has allowed us to stand up a strategy that meets so many needs: navigation support for those who need help, more virtual meetings for people who are isolated, and a career pathway for those who struggle to gain access to employment.

Tell us about your plans with the jails.
Pritchard: We’ll be offering virtual recovery meetings there to introduce people who have started on the path to recovery with peer support. Our goal is to come alongside them and say we’re here to help, and we’ll succeed together.

Why is it important to reach people while they are still in prison?
Pritchard: According to the data, the highest overdose rates are within two weeks of release from incarceration. Our team viewed this as a quick win: we can help one of the hardest-hit populations and offer them an opportunity to become trained as peer recovery specialists. Employment is so important to recovery. Many times, society negatively brands people after they have been in prison and limits their ability to recover. The meetings are also critical. A lot of times when you first get into recovery, you feel like you’re the only one. We want folks to understand that while your story is unique to you, it can have an impact on the community if you speak up. People are also provided resources to get connected to other organizations, so their voice can be heard.

Carringer: This sort of advocacy is important for expanding programs like ours. Most public and private health insurers pay so minimally for peer recovery services compared to reimbursement for behavioral health specialists, making it difficult for health organizations to create a career path for them, even when they see value in the role. We are seeing workforce development boards and community colleges step up to create programs to train people. We need to ensure those who complete the programs have a place to go and work where they can make a difference.

(Picture: Jason (back row, second from right) and Casey (back from, first from left) with participants at the first CPRS training.)