RIZE Massachusetts Unveils Nearly $350,000 in Grants to Improve State’s Behavioral Health Workforce Ecosystem

December 16, 2021

RIZE Massachusetts, an independent nonprofit foundation working to end the opioid overdose epidemic in Massachusetts, today announced that it will invest nearly $350,000 in three initiatives that will stabilize, strengthen and diversify the behavioral health workforce ecosystem in Massachusetts.  These initiatives come as frontline organizations and employees express fatigue after prolonged periods battling the overdose crisis during the pandemic.

The workforce specific programs, made possible in part by funding from Mass General Brigham, will focus on the substance use disorder (SUD) care continuum that includes physicians, social workers, pharmacists and recovery coaches.  As the opioid crisis continues to take a devastating toll during the COVID-19 pandemic, strategic workforce investments will ensure that professionals providing critical, direct care have the knowledge and resources they need.  To date, RIZE has invested in similar programs and studies, including its HaRT Scholars program to train social workers in harm reduction approaches to the opioid overdose crisis.

“The Commonwealth’s workforce ecosystem is showing signs of stress and fatigue due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing behavioral health crisis impacting every community, particularly in communities of color and those facing socioeconomic barriers,” said Julie Burns, president and CEO of RIZE Massachusetts.  “Through these new grants, RIZE will both better understand the state of the workforce and directly support efforts to train current and future professionals in practices that have proven successful in curbing the opioid overdose epidemic in Massachusetts.”

The programs in this round of RIZE funding include:

Understanding & Bolstering the Harm Reduction Workforce in Massachusetts – $70,000

Harm reduction is an approach that focuses on reducing the negative consequences of drug use and supporting individuals in embracing any positive change in their lives and health.  The interventions can include a range of services such as syringe exchange, overdose education, naloxone distribution and drug checking.  Harm reduction practices can be misunderstood, and details of the size and scope of the harm reduction workforce – which includes a wide range of professionals – are limited.

RIZE seeks to identify, quantify and understand the harm reduction workforce and build capacity, support harm reductionists in their current roles, and provide educational opportunities for growth.  It will do this through a $70,000 grant awarded to Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.  The Brandeis team will conduct a detailed needs assessment of the harm reduction profession in Massachusetts through qualitative and quantitative research methods.

“The harm reduction workforce is small but mighty.  We do a tremendous amount of work but are often dismissed by larger systems that work with people who use drugs,” said Mary Wheeler, program director of the Healthy Streets Outreach Program at Health Innovations.  “Research focused on assessing and analyzing labor and pay gaps in the harm reduction workforce will help provide data to strengthen and sustain the harm reduction field.”

Pharmacists’ Initiative Survey and Research – $175,000

Pharmacists are uniquely positioned to play a critical role in overdose prevention, but are underutilized within the behavioral health workforce ecosystem.  The 14,000 registered pharmacists in Massachusetts have a tremendous opportunity to educate consumers about the effects of drugs and safe usage, and to promote harm reduction practices through supply of syringes, provision of naloxone and other practices.  But given that there is limited curriculum in schools of pharmacy in Massachusetts on SUD and harm reduction and few continuing education offerings on these topics, RIZE seeks to strengthen the profession’s understanding of SUD.

Commonwealth Medicine, a division of the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, will use the $175,000 RIZE grant to conduct research – including through a representative survey of Massachusetts pharmacists – on the knowledge, attitudes and practices of pharmacists regarding patients with SUD, their role in treating and preventing SUD, incorporating harm reduction into their professional practices and to assess how stigma may affect services.

“Pharmacists provide an essential role in our communities and throughout our health care ecosystem, connecting patients with medication, education, and counsel,” said Elise Wollenberg, Lead Pharmacist for EMO Health.  “The research being conducted by RIZE is an important step toward engaging and utilizing pharmacists more strategically in our efforts to end the overdose crisis.”

Primary Care Leadership Program – $94,000

Recruiting and retaining a diverse primary care workforce is essential to providing effective SUD treatment for underserved populations in Massachusetts.  The National Medical Fellowships’ Primary Care Leadership Program (PCLP) is designed to develop a pipeline of future primary care professionals from diverse backgrounds who are committed to serving underrepresented communities and to build capacity at community health centers nationwide.

RIZE’s $94,000 grant will support five medical students in the summer of 2022 to work in Boston and Massachusetts gateway cities – mid-size urban centers facing social and economic challenges.  Student scholars will engage in leadership training, team-based project activities, and health care service delivery with a focus on SUD, behavioral health integration, and combating the opioid overdose crisis over the course of the fellowship.

About RIZE Massachusetts

RIZE Massachusetts is an independent nonprofit foundation committed to achieving zero stigma and zero deaths related to opioid use disorder by investing in meaningful solutions and employing broad perspectives that will save lives, reduce harm, and end the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts.  For more information, visit www.rizema.org.