In a survey, recovery residence administrators said their biggest challenges are lack of funding and state government itself. But so far, state lawmakers have focused less on these problems and more on regulations.
by Allen Siegler for Mountain State Spotlight
This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. For more stories from Mountain State Spotlight, visit www.mountainstatespotlight.org.
After several years struggling with fentanyl and heroin use, multiple felony charges and more overdoses than she can remember, Sylvia Mowery couldn’t envision her life without using drugs.
But that changed in 2020, soon after she moved into a Bluefield recovery residence following a stint in jail on non-violent drug charges. Recovery residences, also known as sober living homes, aim to provide low or no-cost safe and sober living arrangements to people with substance use disorders.
At first, Mowery was miserable. But over the next 10 months, the residence provided her with not only a safe roof to live under but also peers in recovery who supported her sobriety.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Mowery said. “Didn’t even know it was possible to live without drugs.”
West Virginia and U.S. officials say recovery residences are crucial for curbing the state’s devastating overdose crisis. But state residents often struggle to find this housing when they need it most.
“We just have a shortage of certified recovery homes statewide,” said Christina Mullins, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources deputy secretary for mental health and substance use disorders, during a public meeting about recovery residences last week.
Many West Virginians battling addiction often end up on waitlists when they try to get into a recovery residence, administrators said in a survey conducted earlier this year. The administrators also said the two biggest challenges they face are a lack of funding and the state government itself.
But West Virginia lawmakers haven’t always prioritized addressing these challenges. Instead, they’ve proposed bills in recent years that people who run recovery residences say could be detrimental to state residents with substance use disorders.
There’s not much indication that legislators will change their approach any time soon. At next week’s interim meetings, West Virginia lawmakers will hear from a taskforce they created to examine the successfulness of sober living homes.
Lawmakers also told that panel to investigate insurance fraud and human trafficking, but the review found those issues weren’t widespread. The panel’s draft recommendations focus mainly on more oversight of sober living homes, a direction that already had administrators of such facilities concerned.
Reggie Jones, executive director of the one of the largest recovery residence nonprofits in West Virginia, said good regulation for these organizations are necessary; but he worries lawmakers’ continued focus on it could not only overshadow the challenges sober living homes constantly face but also lead to legislation harming people seeking recovery.
“It always seems like recovery residences are under attack,” he said.
Funding and policy challenges
Earlier this year, a group of state officials tasked by Gov. Jim Justice to study substance use asked the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences to conduct the survey of home administrators. Emily Birckhead, the WVARR executive director, said the state didn’t provide them with money to do it and the work was funded by a federal grant.
In the survey, recovery home administrators said they struggle to find grants that work for them. While organizations receive some reliable money from the state and from rent, it often doesn’t cover the full cost of running a recovery home. And unlike medical treatment providers, recovery housing services aren’t covered by health insurance.
Recovery Point West Virginia, the sober living home organization Jones operates, provides much of its housing for no cost to the resident. He said the state government reimburses his operation for less than half of Recovery Point’s costs.
For the rest of their expenses, Jones said he and his team have to be creative.
“We have fundraisers,” he said. “We try to find other grants to help supplement the work, but that’s challenging.”
The second biggest challenge West Virginia recovery residences listed was the state’s own policies. The survey didn’t ask recovery residence administrators to explain what policies they were referring to, but Birckhead said one such policy could be WVARR’s certification process.
In 2019, lawmakers required West Virginia recovery residences to pass voluntary certification from WVARR to receive state funding or referrals.
Birckhead said the process is largely good and important for preventing some homes from taking advantage of people with substance use disorders; but she thinks it could have hindered some groups from starting up and growing.
“We’ve had people complete it in a month and we’ve had people who take more than two years,” Birckhead said. “Some of our smaller organizations, something like a whole certification process is really intimidating for them, because they don’t have experience with that or the capacity for that.”
James Phillips, executive director of the West Virginia recovery home organization Seed Sower, said that over the last few years, there have been a number of recent proposals that could have harmed efforts to make homes available to people in recovery.
Some of them include a bill to pilot a recovery residence program that health advocates said could endanger people living in the homes and attempts to require these types of organizations to be licensed by the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification. Recovery residences provide housing and community for people, while treatment facilities provide formal health care like rehabilitation and medication.
“We’re not treatment providers, and OHFLAC is for treatment, not housing,” Phillips said. “There’s a wide misunderstanding of the difference between treatment and recovery.”
Accountability vs. addressing an urgent situation
Next week, West Virginia legislators are expected to discuss recovery residences at an interim meeting. But the state law mandating this presentation outlines an agenda focused on the problems recovery residences could potentially create, not the problems they face.
The Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability will hear from a sober living taskforce created in the 2023 regular session. State policymakers charged the taskforce to examine “insurance fraud, human trafficking, success of programs, and any other relevant issues.”
And so far, they’ve followed those instructions. When the group met last week to prepare for its presentation, it went over draft legislative recommendations, most of which would increase oversight and accountability. But there was little discussion about what resources would help the homes better combat the state’s overdose crisis.
Senate Health and Human Resource Committee chair Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. His House counterpart and lead sponsor of the bill that created the taskforce, Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor, declined to comment through a spokesperson.
Minority Senate Leader Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, was the lead sponsor of the pilot program bill recovery residence advocates criticized earlier this year. He said that while the Legislature has more work to do in the governing of recovery residences, he and other policymakers haven’t done enough to expand resources that would prevent West Virginians from dying of overdoses, including recovery residences.
“It’s been a crisis. It’s been for years,” Woelfel said. “And we certainly haven’t addressed it the way we should address an urgent situation.”
Today, Mowery is the community engagement specialist for Community Action of South Eastern West Virginia’s recovery housing — working with the same Bluefield home she lived at about three years ago.
After a recent decrease in a state grant, she said her organization has been forced to start charging rent for some of their residents, many of whom were just released from prison and are not yet employed.
Mowery hopes lawmakers understand the importance of how they address issues related to recovery residences. Her organization operates one of the only recovery residences for women in the area, a service that she said would not be easily replaced.
“If something happened and we lost funding and our facilities had to close, Mercer County would be in a lot of trouble,” she said.
Recovery Point West Virginia’s women’s facility in Charleston. Photo courtesy of Recovery Point West Virginia.