Alaska Department of Labor to use $1.2 million grant for opioid response

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development plans to use $1.2 million from the federal government for its first programs specifically to help people affected by opioid addiction get back into the workforce.

“The U.S Department of Labor and certainly Alaska recognizes that one of the best programs for getting people back on their feet is a job,” said Department of Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas.

The $1.2 million grant comes from a total of $21 million that the U.S. Department of Labor offered to states, federal agencies and tribes via competitive application.

The Alaska Department of Labor will use some of the funds in partnerships with other state and local agencies and groups — including the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and Alaska Department of Corrections’ Division of Juvenile Justice, according to the agency’s Thursday announcement — for a variety of opioid-focused efforts, ranging from training for school workers to distributing electronic pain management devices to health care providers.

Alaska Department of Labor Assistant Director for the Division of Employment and Training Services Shawna Harper and program coordinator Windy Swearingin worked on the federal grant application.

“They (the U.S Department of Labor) were looking for innovation — that was one thing they were very focused on,” Harper said. “And we felt our project was very innovative because it’s multifaceted. Not just focusing on one group or one certain thing.”

Swearingin said the wide variety of programs the agency plans to put the money into will span age groups affected by opioid addiction.

“We really tried to look at the spectrum — looking from early intervention all the way up to adults, as far as we could reach,” Swearingin said. “So training our teachers in early intervention is part of the grant, and hopefully identifying students that have opioid addiction in their background. And on up to adults, training individuals to recognize and help with pain management.”

The Peninsula Job Center — located in Kenai’s Old Carrs Mall — will be one local group receiving funds to target career training and job-search skills for people recovering from opioid addiction, Harper said.

When and how that money might flow to other local institutions — such as the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Wildwood Correctional Facility and local health care providers — is still to be decided.

Some training funded by the grant will be for those who treat patients addicted to opioids as medical providers or behavioral health councilors, and for teachers and school workers who might work with young opioid users or the children of people addicted to opioids.

Another new grant-funded program targets at-risk youth in Alaska’s juvenile detention system by offering transition camps — “three- to five-day sessions that will provide rural and incarcerated students with career exploration, work readiness training, counseling regarding post-secondary education opportunities, and work-based education experiences,” Drygas said.

“One reason we’re targeting youth in the justice system and Alaskans in correctional facilities is because we know there’s a significant number of individuals in those facilities, youth and adults, who are addicted to opioids,” Drygas said. “Eventually those individuals will be released from the detention facilities, and we want to be sure they have the tools they need to get a job, find a career, and make a better life for themselves. It’s one of the critical pieces to fighting this epidemic — to assist those who are incarcerated and addicted to opioids to come out on the other side, re-enter society, and find a career they enjoy with stable work.”

Because Kenai’s juvenile detention center — the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility — doesn’t have a treatment facility, it won’t be hosting a transition camp, Swearingin said. However “there is a possibility transition camps could happen in the Kenai area with the school district,” she said.

The camps, according to Swearingin, are intended for “usually rural districts who are in the situation where they’re falling behind, struggling, or they need some extra help with their transitioning students who aren’t in a special ed situation who need transition out of high school into employment.”

The one new purchase intended for direct addiction treatment is a set of 100 Bridge Auricular Stimulators to be distributed to health care service providers.

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal include heavy sweating, insomnia, agitation, and joint pain. The Bridge devices are meant to lessen the physical pain of withdrawal during the first five days of the process. Powered by a small battery pack placed behind a recovering person’s ear, the Bridge device uses electrode needles to deliver electrical pulses to cranial nerves.

In early 2017, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s Fallen Up Ministries began using 25 Bridge devices in its work with patients recovering from opioid addiction, calling the initiative the Lazarus Project. Intake Coordinator Shari Conner of Central Peninsula Hospital’s Serenity House drug addiction treatment facility wrote in an email that her group has worked with people who’ve used the Bridge device in the Lazarus Project and that it “is an interesting option for sure.”

The device costs about $500 and isn’t covered by insurance. Whether Serenity House, Central Peninsul Hospital’s medical detox center Care Transitions, or other local health care providers may receive funds or devices from the Department of Labor grant is still undecided.

Reach Ben Boettger at bboettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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