In 2015, the construction industry was still in the early stages of grappling with the aftermath of the prescription opioid crisis. Years of rampant overprescribing followed by much stricter opioid prescribing limits had left many construction workers with substance use disorders (SUDs) related to opioids.
To gauge the impact of opioids on their members, many LIUNA District Councils and LIUNA Locals turned to their LIUNA health and welfare funds. “Initially I thought we didn’t have much of a problem,” said Diana Marburger, Director of the St. Louis Laborers’ Health & Welfare Fund. “Then we realized the real problem was that those claims weren’t in our data, because members weren’t seeking the help they needed.”
“LIUNA, its affiliates and the LHSFNA are doing more than ever to help members and their family members who are facing addiction,” says LIUNA General President and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Brent Booker. “We know the risks that workers in our industry face and we’re here to support them, connect them with resources and see them through to recovery.”
Benefits of Peer Recovery & Finding the LEAN Program
The St. Louis Laborers’ Health & Welfare Fund launched a pilot program to help Laborers in addiction in 2017 and made it permanent in 2019. The 12-week program was all-inclusive of medication and recovery services, leaving only a co-pay for the member. It didn’t take long for calls to start coming in from members and their family members.
Fast forward to 2022, where a continuing opioid crisis and a reduced stigma around getting help led to even more members and their family members to seek help for SUDs. “The lightbulb goes off and you realize you have a bigger problem than you ever thought,” said Marburger. “I needed help, and that’s where the LEAN program entered the picture.”
Don Willey, who was then serving as the Business Manager of LIUNA Local 110, had heard about the Laborers Escaping Addiction Now (LEAN) program started by the Massachusetts Laborers’ Benefit Funds. In addition to providing medication and treatment coverage, the LEAN program was unique in its use of peer-to-peer recovery support provided by LIUNA members who were in recovery themselves. That meant when a member called in for help, they talked to a fellow LIUNA member who would understand, help them navigate the healthcare system and follow up with them during their journey to long-term recovery.
“Don was a big proponent of what we were doing,” said Marburger. “At first, I was skeptical about running such a program through the health and welfare fund instead of the Locals. But the more I talked to the folks running the Massachusetts LEAN program, the more I started thinking this could work.”
Launching the LEAN STL Program
In October of 2022, the St. Louis Laborers’ Health & Welfare Fund made the decision to launch the LEAN STL program. A committee was formed to lead that effort, with Richard McLaughlin, Assistant Business Manager of LIUNA Local 42, as chairman. Ultimately, the committee would choose to hire two full-time peer support specialists to help members with a full range of behavioral health issues.
There were several considerations behind the decision to hire multiple peer support specialists. First, LEAN STL is a 24/7 program, so specialists need to be available any time members need them. There’s also the well-being of the peer support specialists to keep in mind. It can be emotionally tough fielding these requests, and having multiple specialists allows them to look out for one another and take time off when it’s needed.
To equip these peer support specialists with the tools to help members, the St. Louis Health & Welfare Fund sent them through a Community Health Worker course at a local college. They also gave the specialists HIPAA training, training in administering Narcan, first aid, using an AED and in mental health first aid. Both specialists have also become members of the National Peer Recovery Alliance.
In March of 2023, with the assistance of McLaughlin, Marburger and the committee, LEAN STL’s program officially launched. The two peer support specialists – James Pursell and Aaron Walsh – are based out of the fund’s office. They’ve also become a regular sight at Local 110 and Local 42 meetings and have started visiting jobsites to talk about the program as well. While the resources and support are targeted towards members and family members of Locals 110 and 42, LEAN STL’s specialists are helping others along the way too.
“They’ve helped Laborers from other Locals. No Laborer is turned away. They’ve fielded a call from an electrician, from workers who aren’t insured at all. No one in construction is turned away,” said Marburger. The LEAN STL specialists are taking that same approach to behavioral health issues and other crisis situations beyond SUDs. “We aren’t saying ‘Sorry, we don’t help that problem.’ We’re going to figure out how to do it and get these members the help they need.”
Click here for more information on the LEAN STL program. For information and assistance related to bringing a similar program to your LIUNA Region, contact the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Division.