As opioid deaths rise, Roanoke substance use program expands to other Virginia free clinics

By: - September 12, 2023 12:03 am

(Courtesy of Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics)

Virginians grappling with substance use disorder will soon have greater access to help through an expansion of a peer recovery program launched in Roanoke to other free and charitable clinics in the state. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance of Virginia, nearly 500,000 adults in Virginia have a substance abuse disorder. Statewide data also shows fatal drug overdoses, fueled by opioids like fentanyl, have been the leading cause of unnatural deaths in the commonwealth since 2013. 

Pioneered at the Bradley Free Clinic in Roanoke, the HOPE Initiative uses certified peer recovery specialists to connect patients with substance use disorder to a network of treatment and recovery services. 

Christine Wright, the clinic’s behavioral health program manager, said those services can range from detox, inpatient and outpatient programs to recovery-based housing and mutual support groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. 

“I think that can help someone feel a little safer and less apprehensive if they realize that it’s not just a one-size-fits-all,” Wright said. “There are many options, and they’re the one who makes that decision of what their recovery is going to look like for them.”

Several of those treatments can come at minimal or no cost as well, she said. 

The HOPE Initiative, she said, has been very successful — more than 80% of the 2,000 people supported by the program since 2018 have completed treatment or recovery. Data also shows improved access to care and treatment outcomes, she said, as well as increased patient engagement and reduced relapse rates.

The initiative is now set to expand to six other free and charitable clinics through a $500,000 grant awarded this month to the Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation. The Health Wagon, located in Wise County, will be the first to initiate the effort, and the remaining five clinics will be chosen over the next three years.

The Bradley Clinic is unique because it doesn’t provide its own treatment services directly for patients like most peer recovery programs. Instead, the clinic presents patients with a list of resources and treatment options catered to their specific needs based on an initial intake interview.

“If an individual just tries to Google their way into treatment, that can be a very discouraging thing because they can run up against many barriers to treatment,” Wright said. 

Those barriers, which she said can range from issues with insurance or limitations around treatment for specific substances, can disqualify people from treatment and make them feel “hopeless and feel like there aren’t resources out there available.”

“We kind of know all of the ins and outs and the criteria that an individual must meet,” she said, “so then we only present them with the options that are truly viable opportunities for them.”

Peer recovery specialists, Wright said, also work with patients for at least one year as they transition between different levels of care to build a foundation for their recovery. 

 Substance abuse is a “serious epidemic that’s been going on for years, with fentanyl making it even worse and it’s so tragic,” said Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics CEO Rufus Phillips. “Lives have been lost, but you know, in some small measure we’re hoping with this grant that we can help through these free clinics at least six communities in the state have another resource.”


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Meghan McIntyre

Meghan McIntyre is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in print and online journalism, where she received a faculty award for her work. She has stories covering Virginia government and politics published in various outlets across the state through Capital News Service, a course in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU. She was also a previous news intern at VPM and briefly freelanced for The Farmville Herald and The Suffolk News-Herald.