Manatee’s opioid peer program off to slower start due to background checks, officials say

Joshua Barnett, right, speaks to about a dozen local leaders and interested parties in late 2017 during a pre-solicitation, informational meeting on the Opioid-focused Recovery Peer Coach Pilot Program.
Joshua Barnett, right, speaks to about a dozen local leaders and interested parties in late 2017 during a pre-solicitation, informational meeting on the Opioid-focused Recovery Peer Coach Pilot Program. Herald file photo

The opioid crisis has ravaged Manatee County over the past several years. In 2017 the county received $500,000 to fund an opioid peer pilot program to help addicts get help.

The program, which began at the start of 2018, has worked with about 60 opioid users in community, correctional and homeless settings to-date, according to Joshua Barnett, the county healthcare services manager in the neighborhood services department.

Officials say since February, six peer coaches, one clinical supervisor and an administrative assistant have been hired and trained.

Those involved with the project say the slow start is due to rigorous background checks during the hiring process.

Because of the hold up, officials said First Step agreed to a two-month pause in funding for May and June. With that pause, the organization has received $147,194, or about 35 percent of the appropriated funds since February, according to Barnett.

The Central Florida Behavioral Health Network serves as the funding pass-through for the project and contracts with the county. The agreement started as performance-based but due to the rigorous background checks, county officials said, a cost-reimbursement agreement was put in place instead.

“The program has taken a while to get off the ground, we got the funds appropriated a year ago,” said Laura Mckinnon, president of the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network.

“But there are a lot of difficulties. Peer counseling services are great and really work but many counselors who have had issues with substance abuse or mental illness also have a checkered past, so there are problems getting people through the background screening. and weren’t able to start doing services right away.”

Mckinnon is referring to a level 2 background screening, a more meticulous process often used when candidates are applying to positions that have access to people with mental illnesses because they are considered a vulnerable population. The same applies to those trying to work with children.

Officials overseeing the program, along with Mckinnon, say this lengthy process is why the service got off to a slow start.

“With Level 2 background screenings, if you’ve been arrested for basically anything you’re not going to come up as eligible for hire and they have to do both a local and federal check,” Mckinnon said. “And when that happens, they have to go through a process where they submit all this documentation to DCF. And then officials can, one by one, make a determination whether they are going to waive that or not and a lot of times that’s where it gets real bogged down.”

Mckinnon said it can sometimes take six to eight months to clear a candidate.

Manatee County received the money from the 2017 state budget last fall and through November accepted proposals from agencies to develop the novel program, as well as hire and train professional peer coaches who had recovery experience from past opioid and substance abuse. They aimed for it to be up-and-running by the beginning of 2018.

First Step of Sarasota was chosen by a committee in December among four agencies to head the program, county officials said. First Step is a nonprofit organization that “prevents and treats alcohol and drug addictions and associated disorders,” according to the agency’s website.

Barnett says that First Step was selected based on the organization’s knowledge of an evidence-based approach to recovery-oriented service delivery, as well as “their tailored approach to engaging those with opioid use disorders, and their demonstrated capacity to provide community-based services.”

The coaches, the county says, have received training that includes wellness-recovery action planning (WRAP), 40-hour peer certification training, resiliency training and more.

First Step says that the services are usually delivered in community-based settings, as in where people socialize and live, not in offices.

“Engaging with these natural support systems enhances the overall effects of recovery-oriented attitudes such as hope, resiliency, self-efficacy, and sober community living,” the agency said in a news release. “Peer recovery coaching is free to anyone who feels dependent on opioids, and being in treatment is not required to receive services.”

The program’s services, according to First Step, include:

  • Face-to-face engagement in all stages of a peer’s recovery.
  • Enhancing a peer’s understanding of symptoms of substance abuse, mental illness, pain, and effects of trauma to develop positive coping skills.
  • Helping peers advocate for themselves and their personal treatment goals within various treatment settings, including primary care and specialty pain centers
  • Assistance with taking a proactive role in treatment, such as informed decision-making about treatment options, medications, and understanding of diagnoses.
  • Identification of triggers and precursors that are contrary to the peer’s recovery goals, and the development of effective responses to them.
  • Peer advocacy, including raising professional concerns and offering suggestions about unmet needs or treatment preferences as identified by the peer.

“Most importantly, our peer coaches understand the obstacles many face on the road to recovery,” the news release says. “With an ability to share his or her own recovery story, a peer coach offers a professional and supportive relationship that is relaxed, comfortable and nonjudgmental.”

A formal introduction to the peer coach program and its staff is planned for the next county commission meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 7, at 9 a.m.

Follow Samantha Putterman on Twitter @samputterman