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The heroine and opiate epidemic in this country keeps claiming more lives. The death toll is rising. And so many communities are trying to find more space to offer treatment to addicts. Trouble is there is a labor shortage among drug treatment staff. New Hampshire Public Radio's Emily Corwin reports.
EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: When James Newman was 15, he started drinking. At 17, he started using heroin, age 20, rehab, fail, repeat. Then at 22, Newman moved into Phoenix House, a 28-day residential program in Keene, N.H. That's when he met his new addiction counselor.
JAMES NEWMAN: She's a freaking saint. She's - sorry. No, she was like a - she's a saint. She - you know, she is the reason why I'm sober today.
CORWIN: Since he got sober two years ago, Newman's been coming back here to Phoenix House for recovery support. But he says his counselors just keep leaving.
NEWMAN: I had Jenn Whitehead, and then she left. And then another counselor came. She left. And I believe another one came, and then she left.
CORWIN: One out of every four substance abuse clinicians chooses to leave their job each year. It's not just turnover. There's been a shortage of addiction workers for decades. Now the Affordable Care Act and other federal laws mean tens of millions more people can afford those services, too. Amelie Gooding runs Phoenix House in Keene. She's been short a full-time counselor for a year and a half.
AMELIE GOODING: Everybody thinks it's like, oh, there's not enough beds. But that's - there's not enough treatment staff to open more beds.
CORWIN: Since she's understaffed, Gooding has to leave three of her 18 residential beds empty. And she cut her daytime groups down to 50 percent capacity. So where have all the counselors gone?
MELISSA CHICKERING: For me, it got to be sort of too heavy.
CORWIN: Melissa Chickering is one of the counselors who used to work at Phoenix House. Clinical directors would give their right arm to hire someone with her long resume. Instead, Chickering spends her days teaching psych and health science at local colleges. She says, you take on your client's pain. And then there's what she calls a criminal lack of funding and coordination from the state of New Hampshire, like when she ran a program for teenagers.
CHICKERING: There was one point that I was working there that I had open beds, physically, but the - a girl came in and was on the waiting list, and she just didn't have the right funding.
CORWIN: Chickering had to reserve empty beds for clients with a different kind of insurance than this girl had.
CHICKERING: So she died while she was sitting on the waiting list. And I went home that night, and I was like, I had an open bed. Like, how do you sit with that and be OK the next day?
CORWIN: It's not just burnout. There are late nights and loads of paperwork. But most of all, it's the low pay. Addiction counselors earn about $40,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anne Herron is the lead for workforce development at SAMHSA, a federal agency that oversees substance abuse services. She says the feds are working on it.
ANNE HERRON: This is our second year of having workforce development be a strategic initiative for SAMHSA.
CORWIN: Her agency is reaching out to high schools and colleges developing training curricula.
HERRON: Yes, SAMHSA has some initiatives going on. We would like to see more.
CORWIN: Becky Vaughn is VP of addictions with the industry group National Council for Behavioral Health. Vaughn would like the feds to provide scholarships to people studying addiction treatment. In the meantime, a few New Hampshire clinical directors say expanding insurance coverage is already boosting counselor salaries. Staff will come, those employers say, if they can pay. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin in New Hampshire.
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