Cities around the country are struggling to treat America’s growing opioid crisis. But in the search for treatment they’re often skipping a crucial question: What happens to people after they go through a recovery program? Officials in Burlington, Vermont, a state where opioid-related deaths have nearly doubled since 2010, wondered if they could help keep their residents sober by working with them post-treatment.
They discovered that people in recovery struggle to find and keep the jobs necessary for their reintegration into society. That makes them more vulnerable to relapsing, and has contributed to a worker shortage in the city.
Officials in Burlington were able to conduct this research, and start to find solutions, through GE’s HealthyCities Leadership Academy (HCLA). GE challenged Burlington and eight other cities to devote a year to creating programs that improve public health while also lowering healthcare costs. At the end of the year, GE picked three winning cities — Burlington; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Goodyear, Arizona — and awarded them cash grants to continue their programs.
At the start of the program in October 2016, teams from each city met with GE experts at the company’s Crotonville, New York, management training center for a three-day crash course on population health — an emerging discipline that brings the public and private sectors together to address community-wide health concerns. Each team consisted of public policy specialists, government workers and healthcare officials as well as people from local nonprofits and businesses. GE brought in experts to help the teams write business plans, navigate governing agencies and bring on board members. Throughout the year, GE hosted monthly web seminars and individual consultations with the teams to help them stay on track.
Burlington’s Working Recovery team members — 10 people handpicked by a local activist group called the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance — met one another for the first time at Burlington airport on the way to Crotonville, says Tori Houston, the team’s project manager. “We had all these different sectors who had never actually worked together,” Houston says. “But when you have the department of health sitting next to the chamber of commerce, things happen.”
Over the yearlong program, the Burlington team explored the barriers people in recovery face in finding jobs, and figured out ways to overcome them. Spotty work histories, criminal records and treatment schedules that interfere with a typical workday were among the biggest issues they discovered. With input from GE mentors, they determined that one way to help businesses find and retain workers from this talent pool was to teach employers ways to enable continued recovery. “Allowing employees to use personal time off in chunks of one or two hours to attend treatment appointments helps retain workers so employers aren’t having to constantly find and train new people,” Houston says. “By the end, we had employers coming to us, wanting to know how they could get involved.”
GE started “GE Healthycities” in 2010 as a way to help four cities where it has a large presence — Boston, Houston, Cincinnati and Erie, Pennsylvania. The goal was to create programs that cut healthcare costs for local businesses while improving health outcomes for employees. “We thought we’d found something that could transform healthcare around the country,” says Alan Gilbert, GE Healthymagination director of health policy, government and community strategy. “But we needed to test it outside our own cities and see if it could be reproduced.”
So the company created the HCLA program. Charlotte, another of this year’s winners, used the academy to improve an existing program designed to help residents eat better, exercise more and stop using tobacco. The Healthy Charlotte team encouraged healthy behaviors using simple appeals like Try It! Tuesday, which asks residents to substitute a nutritious food or drink each week, and Walking Wednesday, which prompts residents to add 30 minutes of walking to their schedules every week. They worked with local businesses and nonprofits, the media, the county government and the community’s health systems to support the efforts. Today, Charlotte has improved in six of nine target areas, including reducing adult smoking and teen births and increasing physical activity and mammography screening.
Officials in Goodyear, the third winner of this year’s contest, came together to develop Wellspring Park, a 130-acre plot of currently vacant land that will be devoted to health and wellness activities, with walking trails, spaces for outdoor exercising, community sporting opportunities and eventually a farmers market.
“The thought is that if these entities get out of their silos and work together, they will develop more impactful programs,” Gilbert says. “We have to solve the bigger issues.”