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Substance abuse agencies struggling to retain staff

It’s harder to keep up the fight against the opioid crisis if some of those on the front lines keep getting lured away to higher paying jobs, including at insurance companies.

That was the message delivered in Buffalo on Monday to Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and several state legislators by a roomful of service providers.

Insurance companies are hiring clinicians away from service agencies as the companies expand services related to substance abuse to, said Anne D. Constantino, president and CEO of Horizon Health Services.

Horizon has lost about 15 counselors and some administrators just in the last month and a half, Constantino said.

What’s the draw? Higher pay – salary bumps to the tune of 1 ½ times a person’s annual pay, she said. Service agencies’ budgets, and salaries of their employees, don’t have much wiggle room as they are based on insurance reimbursement rates.

“It seems wrong that if you’re saving a life, you get paid less than the person who’s watching you save the life,” Constantino said.

Most of the jobs in question require a master’s degree and a state license. And working with populations affected by drug addiction further limits the qualified pool of applicants.

The staffing crunch comes at a bad time, agency officials said, as many agencies are planning to expand services.

Catherine Puleo of the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services called pay “a major issue.”

“All of my programs are losing staff to the jails, prisons, insurance companies,” Puleo said. “One of my providers had an open interview and had three people show up in two hours.”

Sue Bissonette, executive director of Cazenovia Recovery Systems, called workforce development and pay equity “a critical issue.” Bisonette said her agency is finding it challenging to keep a facility in Somerset fully staffed, mainly because it is in a rural area.

Troubles with staffing levels were echoed by representatives of other agencies, including Spectrum Human Services, Renaissance Addiction Services and Niagara County Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

An agreement reached in June among state elected officials aimed at combating the heroin and opioid crisis drew praise from those attending Monday’s discussion in Horizons’ Hertel Avenue facility.

The state’s agreement includes:

• Limiting the supplies of individual opioid prescriptions.

• Requiring insurance coverage for medications that treat substance abuse.

• Eliminating the requirement of prior approval by insurance companies for inpatient services

Some of the changes under that law have already gone into effect, while others go into effect Jan. 1.

Hochul pointed to new uniform state standards for determining care for drug treatment, a move that stemmed from a wide variance among criteria used for hospital admission across the state.

In some cases, it was akin to people being told their problem wasn’t big enough and to go home until your condition gets worse, Hochul said.

Other improvements include required training for hospital staff handling the discharge of patients, she said.

Geno Russi, executive director of Hispanics United of Buffalo, said service agencies don’t do a good enough job recruiting employees and need to have a better organized recruitment process.

“That’s why we all have to fight for the little pool that’s there,” Russi said.

Constantino, of Horizon, said there are simple things that could be done to boost workforce levels, like a loan repayment program or other incentives.

“Counselors do amazing work. They save people’s lives,” she said, “but they have to pay the bills, too.”

If you or someone you care for needs information, resources, or access to treatment related to drug addiction, please call Crisis Services’ 24-hour Addiction Line: (716) 831-7007.


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