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Inter-university coalition created to battle substance-use crisis

Four Virginia universities have teamed up alongside U.Va. to provide support to local organizations in their research, treatment and prevention of opioid and other substance-use issues.

<p>In just the 2012-2013 timeframe, more opioid related deaths were recorded than from more vehicles or gun violence.</p>

In just the 2012-2013 timeframe, more opioid related deaths were recorded than from more vehicles or gun violence.

The current number of individuals dying from opioid-use disorder, including opioid overdose deaths, exceeds the number of people who were dying with AIDS at the height of the HIV crisis. In response, the University has teamed up with four other Virginia universities to create the Virginia Higher Education Opioid Consortium, with the goal of providing university support to local health organizations working on the ground to fight the crisis. The four partnering institutions include George Mason University, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University and Virginia State University. 

By implementing a coalition such as the VHEOC, university, government and local health officials hope to utilize the vast resources of universities to help lessen the current substance-abuse cases and fatalities in Virginia. In the future, the VHEOC can also be used as a model for other states and health issues.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration allocates funding through the State Opioid Response Program. Prior to receiving this funding last year, David Driscoll, the University’s assistant dean for research and director of the Office of Research in the School of Medicine, teamed up with individuals from the Virginia State Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to propose that some funding be allocated to Virginia universities in order to answer the questions and help further the capabilities of Community Service Boards across the state.

“Community services boards … are community-level organizations,” Driscoll said. “People who are working with people who need help with substance-use disorders, they put together the prevention programs, they're really the front line.”

After receiving a $2.5 million grant this past August from SAMHSA, the coalition has started reaching out to the 40 community service boards located across Virginia in order to start the conversation.

“It's important to recognize that … there is no funding that flows to the universities that isn't associated with support to the [community service boards],” Driscoll said. “We don’t get paid, otherwise. We were not trying to write something into the proposal for us … we wanted to try and ensure that we could provide services to the local organizations.”

The idea is that community service boards will bring an issue or question forth to the VHEOC, such as choosing the best type of drug screening, and each university will come up with a proposal to help that board. In the end, the community service board will get to choose their favorite proposal, at which point the chosen university will receive specific funding to spearhead the project or research.

William Hazel, senior advisor for innovation and community engagement at George Mason University, is working alongside Driscoll to jump-start the VHEOC. Hazel also served as the Secretary of Health and Human Resources of Virginia from 2010 to 2018, during which he saw opioid use become a large public issue. In just the 2012 to 2013 timeframe, more opioid-related deaths were recorded than from vehicles or gun violence. According to Hazel, this is what got everyone’s attention.

“Prior to that, it was a little more hidden, the numbers weren’t quite as big,” Hazel said. “I think issues of stigma and so forth suppressed reporting of the cause, and so we were suddenly looking at a full-blown crisis of people dying, people overdosing, children going into foster care due to substance use and jails filling up with such related issues.”

The VHEOC is the first of its kind, in the sense that there is no large coordinating center organizing the university-wide collaboration. Previously, there have been examples of multi-university collaborations funded and organized by the NIH, but the VHEOC is a coalition organized by the universities themselves.

“The idea that we work together and try to solve problems in an aligned, collaborative effort is a new idea in Virginia,” Hazel said. “We haven't tried that before to this extent, in this circumstance, and if it works I think it holds promises and can be a model for working in other domains.”

During Hazel’s tenure as secretary of health and human resources, he worked alongside the secretary of public safety to co-lead the effort at the state government level to fight the opioid epidemic. During this time, he noticed the lack of use of university resources, which Driscoll and other VHEOC members began to notice as well.

“If a [community service board] didn't have the capacity to do something, they didn't ask for that money,” Driscoll said. “Now, if [a community service board] can identify a problem, the state will pay the university to help with it. It's a completely new concept, it’s never been done.”

The VHEOC is currently in its outreach stage, explaining to community service boards what the coalition’s goals are, since this is an idea that is new to these organizations. The University is the physical agent of the coalition, meaning they will oversee the coordination of all the different projects that are going to be taking place across the state. The idea is that collaboration will bring forth many more ideas and resources than if one group was working alone.

“No one university can really come up with a solution,” Driscoll said. “If three universities can work together, we could come up with a solution that would be able to support them.”

As of now, the VHEOC is funded for the next four years, and from there, it will depend on the success of the coalition. According to Driscoll, funding will most likely continue if the VHEOC can demonstrate that their work is truly helping local entities. 

Whether or not the funding for the VHEOC ends, Driscoll hopes to see public universities continue to play an active role in community-based support.

“Universities have a lot of capacity to help with problems that in some cases, local-level departments don't,” Driscoll said. “I think it's our responsibility — we’re a public university, we should be doing something about these problems. If this works, that can become a model for how we approach these problems.”

According to Hazel, people need to think about the current crisis not as opioids, but about substance-use disorder in general.

“When you look at [Virginia’s] public behavioral health system, you have issues related to mental ailments, behavioral health, we have a shortage of state hospital beds, we have shortages in treatment,” Hazel said. “We need to be thinking about how we treat behavioral health issues and what underlies them.”