Confronting drug addiction is harder most any other personal battle someone can face. After the first waves of detox, success comes in small increments stacked on top of each other, day by day. It’s a long-term struggle since one never truly conquers addiction. Anyone who finds themselves in that situation could certainly use a friend.
Enter the recovery coach — the person, usually a recovering addict themselves, who holds a lamp and guides someone else through the dark places. It’s a job so important that Mass Health last year included it as a benefit in the state’s healthcare program for those living with low incomes. Given the depth of the opioid problem in Massachusetts — deaths from overdoses are no longer growing by leaps, according to the state Department of Public Health, though overdoses are still on the rise — it’s clear we need a lot of them.
At the same time, the state should license and monitor them. The job does not require the same breadth of education and preparation as a mental health counselor, to be sure, but its influence is significant enough to warrant oversight. Which is why the state should carefully consider and implement recommendations of a group created to study the job and offer ideas about how to put structure around it.
The Recovery Coach Commission, created by the opioid bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2018, served up a report at the start of the month that, above all, imagines a board of registration to license those doing this important work. In that way, the job of recovery coach would be treated much like other professions, such as nutritionists, psychologists and social workers.
The framework makes sense for a few reasons. For one, the state can funnel those in a position whose credentialing is now voluntary — recovery coaches can elect to get a license from the Massachusetts Board of Substance Abuse Counselor Certification, a private entity — through a mandatory, prescribed regimen. Secondly, a board of registration creates an entity to oversee the work of recovery coaches, weigh professional complaints them, and take action if necessary.
Significantly, a board of registration also becomes a resource for those looking to find a recovery coach.
The commission placed an emphasis on credentialing recovery coaches who’ve personally experienced addiction, what it calls “lived experience,” acknowledging a long tradition of recovering addicts helping those still struggling with addiction. The model has proven effective for those recovering from alcohol and narcotics addictions.
“They’ve walked that walk,” Joanne Peterson, director of Learn to Cope, a nonprofit that works with families of addicts, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade. “When someone is seeking treatment, having someone to talk to who’s been through it, who can show that there is a way out, can make an enormous difference in their life.”
Currently more than 200 people are being paid from state programs to work as recovery coaches, and another 122 are working with private programs, according to the commission’s report. They generally get paid anywhere from $25,000 to $47,000 a year, though the commission found a large portion of those working as recovery coaches do so without pay. As many as one-third of those working in connection with private programs are volunteers.
But their number is sure to grow. And, the commission notes, the fact that Mass Health now insures recovery coach services is likely to make the work more lucrative. It pointed to "early indications" that this is already happening.
A field experiencing such growth — both because of need, and now because the work is more likely to be compensated — requires more rigorous oversight. The commission’s findings are significant and should be quickly followed up and implemented.