Anti-opioid group refuels with $200K federal grant

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission was the only Massachusetts recipient of the funding through the federal Office of Rural Health Policy.

PITTSFIELD — An infusion of federal money will significantly expand a 5-year-old effort to confront the opioid epidemic in Berkshire County, allowing people on the front lines to test the most effective ways of saving lives.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission said Friday that it won a $200,000 grant that will allow it to work with local groups to take stock of what's working — or not working.

"There's a lot to do in one year," said Jennifer Kimball, the commission's senior planner who applied for the money, which comes from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. "This is a really exciting new partnership."

While no new programs will be launched, the money will allow the Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative and its partners to shape what Kimball calls a "comprehensive road map" to counter a rising tide of unintentional overdoses.

Overdose deaths have doubled in the county since 2012, according to Kimball, the collaborative's coordinator.

The existing opioid addiction prevention group is funded by a roughly $100,000 yearly allocation from the Legislature. Kimball's team will use to the new federal money to create the Berkshire County Opioid Response Planning initiative.

"Only through good planning do good programs come," Kimball told members of the Berkshire Public Health Alliance board Thursday, after learning that her application had been approved.

Kimball said Friday that the existing collaborative's budget has not enabled it to keep up with work that its partners want to tackle, but can't, due to lack of staff.

"This is a very big deal to get a federal grant of this size," said Laura Kitross, the commission's public health program manager.

In a statement Friday announcing the grant, the commission noted that anti-opioid projects have scraped along with inadequate funding.

"Traditionally, Berkshire County has been profoundly under-resourced and under-funded regarding substance misuse, prevention, addiction, and treatment resources," the commission said.

The funding will flow to projects in North and South County. The group was the only Massachusetts recipient of the funding through the federal Office of Rural Health Policy.

The money will propel anti-opioid planning by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in North Adams and Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires in Great Barrington. The Brien Center in Pittsfield will provide technical assistance, Kimball said.

In Great Barrington, the Volunteers in Medicine program will study the effectiveness of work it is already doing with uninsured clients to provide alternative ways to treat pain, as well as explore how those methods could be expanded across the county.

Ilana Steinhauser, the program's executive director, said in a statement that work will continue to provide people who lack health insurance with tools to prevent addiction as well as "alternative pain management" approaches.

Kimball said the Great Barrington program is likely to tap volunteers to collect and analyze data about its work, with some short-term hiring possible.

Steinhauser said Friday that her program will work to better understand the needs of people it services, including members of the immigrant community.

"And try to make some future plans and hopefully expand to other parts of the county," she said, most likely with other partners. "It's an exciting grant, and we're excited to be part of it."

Amber Besaw, executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, said the money will help advance development of a recovery center.

Countywide, Kimball and the partners will examine gaps in the availability of medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone. While that is offered in Pittsfield and North Adams, no methadone clinic exists in South County.

The money will also be used to shape ways to address transportation gaps that leave people unable to get to available anti-opioid services.

Other steps backed by the grant: filling gaps in programs that use peers to help people facing addiction, and actions to provide access to clean syringes.

Winning the grant, Kimball said, will give the Berkshires groups a leg up as applicants for future funding from the federal government and other sources.

Larry Parnass can be reached at, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.