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Health leaders developing plan to help those with substance use disorder

Thursday, March 17, 2022 by Willow Higgins

For the past two years, a network of local stakeholders has been thinking about how best to help community members who struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. After two years of “planning to plan,” representatives from the Travis County Department of Health and Human Services, the city of Austin and Central Health have developed a coordinated strategy and will be making some final recommendations to the Commissioners Court. If the recommendations are approved, the development of the substance use disorder (SUD) community plan will begin. “Substance use disorder” is the official term for someone whose addiction to drugs or alcohol causes significant physical, mental and personal problems. 

Once put into action, the SUD plan will provide services to in an equitable and accessible way. The continuum of care, which aids in addiction prevention as well as intervention, could include a wide array of recovery services including harm reduction, treatment services, withdrawal management and clinical services.

Although the City Council Public Health Committee was short on time for questions when it was briefed on the SUD planning process, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes expressed concern about the lengthiness of the process.

“I’m struggling to understand what (planning to plan) means,” Fuentes said. “Just last week we had, what, 12 overdoses … I know the investigations are ongoing, but many were linked to opiates. I think that we are at a point where this really has reached a level of crisis and what our community needs to see is action. … How much longer are we going to be in a planning process versus when will we see an actual planned product come together so that we can better address the crisis that we’re seeing?”

“One of the reasons that the plans that we’ve had before have not been put into action is because of this lack of a planning structure – a shared table where everyone can sit together to do that implementation work,” Rachel Coff of Travis County HHS said in response. “So this ‘planning to plan’ has been all about establishing that shared table and trying to make recommendations around what it needs to look like.”

The planning-to-plan approach is an extra-judicious one – since 2001, the community has been working on various needs assessments and community planning efforts to help those with SUDs in the region, but has been unable to agree on an effective process. The approach ensured stakeholders would take a step back to explore community interests in SUD planning and support.

“The SUD planning structure would allow local government and the community to create and steward a SUD community plan with broad community support and buy-in; identify, adjust, or secure resources to address service gaps; and better serve residents through a SUD plan that’s developed through a framework of equity and accessibility,” Courtney Lucas of Travis County HHS told the Public Health Committee at a recent meeting.

The results of the two-year community planning process have been released and include an abundance of information about the values behind the resources, the scope of the plan, and the various roles and functions of the resources to be provided. The results will be presented to the Travis County Commissioners Court on March 29 alongside an action item. If approved, the second half of the process will begin.

The next phase is for stakeholders to develop the community plan, which includes tasks like figuring out what a service continuum looks like, what populations need to be served, what services need to be included, and what the community’s funding priorities are. Once the community plan is finalized, it can be implemented. The timeline for the plan development and implementation has yet to be determined.

Coff went on to explain that, in terms of timing, action can be expected “very soon.” After they go to the Commissioners Court, they’ll be able to “take some more tangible steps forward to operationalize.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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