What Happens When 22 Health Leaders Join Forces to Fight Opioids?

By Thomas Vincz, Public Relations Manager, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey

Two Horizon BCBSNJ leaders work to knock down barriers to treatment at this year’s New Jersey Healthcare Executive Leadership Academy.

People struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) can rarely beat it alone. The same is true for those leading the larger fight against the opioid epidemic.

That’s why National Recovery Month has been held every September for the past 30 years. This national observance celebrates the millions of Americans who are in recovery from mental and substance use disorders in addition to those who’ve helped them lead healthy, rewarding lives.

New Jersey is also doing its part to raise awareness and promote effective treatments to make recovery possible for those living in our state with SUD.

Bringing together 22 providers and executives from New Jersey’s hospitals and health insurance companies, this year’s New Jersey Healthcare Executive Leadership Academy (NJHELA) highlighted the power of collaboration in solving the state’s opioid crisis.

NJHELA is a collaborative undertaking by the New Jersey Hospital Association, the Medical Society of New Jersey and the NJ Association of Health Plans, with academic partner Seton Hall University – representing the three pillars of our health care system: hospitals, providers and payers.

Delivering the health insurer perspective were two Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey leaders who brought the first-hand experience to the task: JoAnn Karcic, MPA, director of behavioral health programs and Tracy Parris-Benjamin, LMSW, director of clinical design in community health.

Karcic and Parris-Benjamin completed the NJHELA certification program this past June after six months of coursework and group projects that provided the state’s health care system with new tools to help people with SUD, including Horizon’s own members, join the path to recovery – and stay on it.

Both leaders’ participation reinforces the work already underway at Horizon BCBSNJ, where the response to the opioid epidemic has been far-reaching. Horizon’s approach encompasses three key areas: Education and Prevention, Treatment and Recovery, and Community Outreach.

A focus on stigma

Karcic and Parris-Benjamin’s projects at NJHELA will help to knock down barriers to treatment. Fewer than 10 percent of individuals with an SUD enter treatment annually.

Karcic’s group produced a series of three videos aimed at informing the discussion of stigma and discrimination. Stigma is used to describe the negative way people, including doctors, think about and act towards people with an SUD.

“In many cases, substance use disorder is considered a moral failing rather than the brain disease that it is,” said Karcic. “With our videos, we wanted to encourage a new way of thinking.”

As part of an initiative called #AddictionImpactsMe, the three videos feature emotional testimonials from people in recovery – including a registered nurse – and their family members to show the impact that stigma can have on people seeking treatment.

“We wanted to share personal stories because we felt those do the best job of opening up people’s eyes to the effects of stigma,” said Karcic. The three videos can be found on YouTube: Ken’s Story, Family & Addiction, and Healthcare Workers & Addiction.

Working alongside hospital administrators and substance use counselors, Parris-Benjamin focused on the various “pathways” people with an SUD can take to enter recovery.

“Everyone who suffers from this disorder is unique,” explained Parris-Benjamin. “You could have someone starting out who was prescribed painkillers after a C-section or someone who started out using heroin.”

Her group’s goal was to better understand a person’s readiness to begin recovery and then empower various stakeholders with guidelines to appropriately support that person at his or her “entry point” into recovery. Her group focused on working to develop roadmaps that served as bridges to providers in hospital settings, families and in the community.

For example, if a person seen at an ER isn’t ready to enter recovery, hospital staff should have pathways to provide a customized approach to addressing that person’s immediate needs without judgment. This approach can be as simple as helping to arrange a ride home or providing a phone number to call when they are ready to enter treatment. Or it may include providing proactive outreach once a person has been discharged from the ER so they can begin forming future connections to treatment.

For those ready to begin their journey into recovery, it can mean facilitating the community, social and treatment resources, including medication-assisted treatment, the “gold standard” evidence-based treatment for SUD, that dramatically improve the likelihood of success.