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CareFirst awards $2.1 million to community groups fighting opioid crisis

The Carefirst Building in Owings Mills. (file)

The CareFirst Building in Owings Mills. (file)

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield has awarded a combined $2.1 million to 11 community health organizations fighting substance use disorders, including the opioid epidemic, leaders announced at Baltimore City Hall Wednesday.

The grants, totaling between $100,000 and $382,000 each, follow a request for proposals issued by CareFirst this year in an effort to fight the opioid crisis through community-centered organizations.

“As a not-for-profit insurer, our mission is to not only provide quality and affordable access to health care for our members, but to also work to increase access to available health care services to under and uninsured populations,” Maria Harris Tildon, CareFirst’s executive vice president of marketing, communications and external affairs, said.

The awardees include clinics, charities and drug treatment programs across CareFirst’s coverage area of Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia. The awards are expected to affect 115,000 patients.

Despite efforts from federal, state and local officials along with private efforts, opioid-related deaths in Maryland have continued to rise. Drug- and alcohol-related deaths rose 11 percent to 1,325 through the first six months of this year, compared to the first half of 2017.

The grants will allow organizations across the region to add staff, increase training, purchase more of the opioid-reversal drug naloxone, and implement medication-assisted treatment.

At west Baltimore’s Tuerk House, the nearly $134,000 the program received will be used to grow an intensive outpatient treatment program, increase access to medication-assisted treatment and bring on more peer-recovery specialists.

“Peer-recovery specialists are sort of the foot soldiers in going from house to house and encouraging our patients to let them know that treatment works only if you will engage them,” Bernard Gyebi-Foster, Tuerk House’s executive director, said. “This allows us to do that.”

The CareFirst grants are expected to have direct and indirect effects. Directly, these grants could help save lives, whether through a dosage of naloxone that was otherwise unpurchased or by getting one more person into recovery.

But by going through CareFirst’s request for proposals process, the insurer is signaling that these groups and options can be taken seriously, said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.

“CareFirst has come to this conclusion that you will be good stewards of the money that you receive,” he said. “I have a major problem with fly-by-night organizations that are not properly treating people, and then (patients) go in and they get so-called treatment and then they walk out and they are not healed. And then they become discouraged for the rest of their lives in many instances.”

Other organizations to receive grants include Anne Arundel Medical Center Foundation, Arlington County Community Service Board, Association for the Public Defender of Maryland, Behavioral Health Leadership Institute, Catholic Charities of Baltimore, Family and Medical Counseling Service, Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, Health Care for the Homeless, University of Maryland Baltimore Foundation and Western Maryland Health System Foundation.

The community grants come in addition to other steps CareFirst has taken to respond to the opioid epidemic, including limiting the amount of opioids doctors can prescribe for its members and reducing out-of-pocket costs for members seeking drug treatment. It also has bolstered its own programs for treatments, including a focus on outpatient treatment.

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