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CHARLESTON — West Virginia lawmakers have passed two bills meant to improve standards of care at peer-led addiction recovery facilities — places that aren't licensed medical providers, but are instead operated by people in recovery.

During special session this week, West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that would expand the types of organizations that can receive settlement money from lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors. Previously, the money could only go to licensed medical facilities that offer long-term, inpatient care.  

Monday, during a special legislative session focused mostly on education, West Virginia senators passed a bill that would also allow peer-led facilities, such as sober living homes, transitional housing and recovery residences, to also receive the money. Allison Adler, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, has said organizations receiving the money would need to follow National Alliance of Recovery Residences standards.

Emily Birckhead, executive director of the newly formed West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences, said that people sending their loved ones to these facilities will eventually be able to look into the safety and efficacy of the facility by determining whether it is a registered member of her alliance, which is an affiliate of the National Alliance of Recovery Residences. The aim, she said, is a "person-centered approach."

"If you don't match the person to the program, and the person goes to that program and it doesn't fit, they might decide recovery doesn't fit and it's not for them," she said.

For some people, she said, long-term inpatient care might be needed. For some who've already been through treatment, maybe they no longer need regular medication and therapy, but need a housing environment with others in recovery. For some, maybe outpatient treatment is best.

"Not everybody needs a treatment bed," she said. "Not everybody needs 12 months. It really depends on the person and where they're at."

Participation in the organization is voluntary. But lawmakers also recently passed a bill requiring peer-led facilities that receive other state funding to also follow National Alliance of Recovery Residences standards. Peer recovery services have increased in West Virginia, following federal government approval of a waiver to bill Medicaid for peer support services.   

The West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences plans to have recovery residences registered with the organization listed on their website, as well as the services available. They will review administration, including staffing and formal policies and procedures, as well as services.

Birckhead said that could mean information on length of stay, whether programming like 12-step classes or on-site therapy is available, as well as whether the program offers help with life skills, such as parenting classes or cooking classes.

"We have to teach them how to take what they’ve learned in treatment and apply it to real life, and things like — when you first get sober — things like past-due bills or, God forbid, getting your children back are the kinds of things that really shake people up, and being in a supportive environment surrounded by people experiencing the same thing as you can really make or break whether you maintain sobriety," she said. "The whole idea is that we’re trying to maintain long-term recovery, and in order to do that, we have to help people create lives that are worth staying in recovery for.”

She said each residence will be required to re-certify on an annual or biannual basis and may be subject to unannounced audits. They will do on-site inspections and interviews, she said. People will also be able to file grievances, she said. 

"They don't get to just come to me and say, 'Hey, we checked all these boxes and that's it,'" she said.

Many recovery residences in West Virginia already report to DHHR's Bureau for Behavioral Health, she said, because they receive state funding. 

"There's a lot of not-so-great homes that pop up all over the place, which are the ones we're trying to find, but there are a lot of really good reputable recovery homes in the state," she said.

West Virginia has had the highest drug overdose death rate in the country since 2010. Birckhead said the National Alliance of Recovery Residences formed in 2012. 

Birckhead said she was funded in September through a grant from the state Office of Drug Control Policy. She said they're modeling their program on a long-running program in Ohio.

She said it was likely the organization formed only recently because of "capacity."

"We have a lot of people that are really amazing that are doing really amazing things, but they’re all wearing a lot of hats," she said.

"There are a lot of states that do this with all volunteer boards, and it just takes them a really long time to get things done, and the people in our state especially are very busy.”

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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