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WVU expands rural opioid response programs with $1M grant

Photo of the Westbrook Health Services Mobile Unit, a converted cargo van, parked in a grassy area with support staff sitting nearby.

Funding for the Rural Communities Opioid Response program enables the WVU Institute for Community and Rural Health to address barriers to prevention, treatment and recovery services for substance use disorder, including providing the Westbrook Health Services Mobile Unit with the supplies needed to support telemedicine and harm reduction efforts like providing naloxone and testing for HIV and hepatitis C. (WVU Photo/Amy Snodgrass)

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The West Virginia University Institute for Community and Rural Health will use $1 million to continue expanding resources across West Virginia through the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program.

A multi-year initiative funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program addresses barriers to prevention, treatment and recovery services for substance use disorder, including opioid use disorder. This is the second time the Institute has received $1 million in funding for the program.

“The funding renewal will provide a tremendous opportunity to strengthen and expand substance use disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery services in rural communities within the Mid-Ohio Valley,” Amy Snodgrass, project director, said. “Through the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program, ten counties will now have access to mobile units, a county drop-in recovery center, peer support services, recovery classes, case management and behavioral health programming through services offered at rural health clinics.”

The first funding cycle, lasting from 2019 to 2022, enabled program development in nine rural West Virginia counties — Calhoun, Gilmer, Jackson, Pleasants, Ritchie, Roane, Tyler, Wirt and Wood. Through the new grant, the Institute will be able to continue its outreach and also expand to include Doddridge County.

With a focus on developing connections and community collaboration, the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program is designed to build programs to become sustainable.

In its first three years, the program has provided support through various activities such as the recruitment and retention of health care providers, evidence-based prevention education, training and professional development opportunities, expansion of existing community programs, and health screenings and referrals.

Through collaboration with the Mid-Ohio Valley Rural Health Alliance, WVU’s experts have been able to partner with agencies including the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, Minnie Hamilton Health System, Northern West Virginia Rural Health Education Center and Westbrook Health Services.

“During the last three years, there's been a measurable increase in access to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services in the service area, but also a movement at the community level to support those who need these services,” Brianna Sheppard, principal investigator from 2019 to 2022, said. “There's been an increase in access to naloxone and an increase in access to medications for opioid use disorder as evidenced by the increase in the number of prescribers in the region that actively prescribe. 

“Health systems in the area have used this as an opportunity to identify additional services and delivery systems needed to address substance use disorder which includes developing contingency management programs in their clinics and a mobile unit that travels to different counties.”

Victoria Sanchez, director of research and evaluation for the WVU Institute for Community and Rural Health, will serve as principal investigator for the upcoming cycle. Leading up to funding approval, her work has been critical to a successful application and the development of a work plan.

“The next three-year grant will build on the strong foundation developed through successes and lessons learned in the previous period,” Sanchez said. “The consortium will continue innovative evidence-based practices implemented over the last three years, and with the addition of new community-based and clinical partners, work will expand and develop new services.”

To determine new initiatives, listening sessions were held with individuals from across the region, who expressed the need for additional access to services. Plans are underway for the creation of drop-in centers to provide those services, like kitchens for getting a meal, restrooms for showering and technology resources for classes and training opportunities.

The Rural Communities Opioid Response Program has already enabled mobile unit and telehealth services to reach new communities, as well as peer support services to connect individuals to treatment and recovery services through county-led Quick Response Teams.

In combination with another WVU-awarded grant, the program also helped support expanded behavioral health programming through Minnie Hamilton Health System to include a medication-assisted treatment program. As a result, the health system is now operating at capacity and is in the process of becoming a licensed behavioral health center, allowing for further expansion of treatment services.

To meet education needs across the region and in similar communities across the United States, the Regrounding Our Response curriculum was identified as an educational tool to address stigma and common misunderstandings and raise awareness about public health approaches to the opioid overdose crisis. The training program, originally developed by the Maryland Department of Health, was adapted to include West Virginia-specific data with the assistance of an advisory team and WVU experts. Since its implementation, 50 master presenters have been equipped to lead Regrounding Our Response West Virginia trainings across the state.

“We've seen an increase in the number of clinical and community-based partners actively engaged in this work every year. These partnerships are reflected in the activities planned for the next three years that increase the impact of this work through shared knowledge, collaboration and working together on referrals and wraparound services,” Sheppard said. 

“Together these outcomes indicate a significant decrease in stigma towards those with substance use disorder and, perhaps most importantly, an increase in focusing on the solutions rather than the problems and choosing to work toward solutions as a community.”



MEDIA CONTACT: Christie Zachary
Program Manager
WVU Institute for Community and Rural Health

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