A $15 million Massachusetts program helps addiction workers pay off their student loans

People who work in substance abuse in Massachusetts — counselors, social workers, staff at addiction treatment facilities — are eligible for state funds to help pay off their student loans. The move is meant to help these workers, who play a vital part in recovery but whose jobs often offer low pay, stay in the industry longer. GBH associate producer Rachel Armany joined Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about the new initiative. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Paris Alston: Tell us more about the plan and who it’s intended for.

Rachel Armany: This plan was voted on by this 21-person council. That includes public health leaders from cities and towns and substance abuse workers themselves, first responders, people like that. It’s setting aside $15 million to pay off student loans for people who work directly in substance abuse. That would include counselors, clinicians, people who help with things like stabilization and housing. And this is part of an effort to recruit and retain those workers who are kind of notoriously underpaid.

Jeremy Siegel: That’ll be a big deal for these workers, having loans paid off. Fifteen million dollars is not a small amount of money. Where does this come from?

Armany: This money comes from the state’s trust fund for its settlements with drugmakers who helped fuel the opioid epidemic. Think companies like Purdue Pharma, the Sackler Family, Johnson & Johnson. At the end of last month, that fund was totaled up to $35 million so far, and that’s expected to grow to over $500 million over the next two decades, when all of these settlements bear out.

Alston: It’s interesting that this is also coming at the same time that the Biden administration is trying to alleviate student loan debt for many people nationwide. And so I’m wondering with that, Rachel, what is going to be the impact on the workers in this particular industry with this plan?

Armany: I spoke with some workers in this industry. I spoke with Elizabeth McGowan, who is a recovery support navigator at Bay Cove Human Services, and she said that taking out a lot of loans is really common for her field. All of her colleagues have taken out a lot of loans. She’s taken out a lot of loans. She even told me that she was going to pursue an in-person masters degree, but she actually chose an online one because she couldn’t afford it. And she said that helping pay off those student loans could help workers stay in the industry for a longer amount of time and have more stability. She said that that would have an impact on the people who are actually struggling with substance abuse disorder themselves, because they can have those connections long term.

[Previously recorded]

Elizabeth McGowan: Sometimes having a clinician or a case worker that’s able to be at their facility long term helps foster a sense of, I guess I would say, stability.

[Recording ends]

“Sometimes having a clinician or a caseworker that’s able to be at their facility long-term helps foster a sense of, I guess I would say, stability.”

-Elizabeth McGowan, recovery support navigator at Bay Cove Human Services

Siegel: It’s interesting you got to speak to workers in this field who will be affected by this new plan. I’m curious, in speaking to people who work in substance abuse in Massachusetts, is there anything else that you learned about working in this particular field and the challenges that they face?

Armany: I also spoke with Joe Kelleher, who is the president of the Massachusetts Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. He oversees the association of workers who work in this industry. He’s been working in this field for over 30 years. And he says that working in substance abuse is not for everyone. And a lot of the people who actually work in this industry are people who have struggled with addiction themselves in the past and people who are in recovery.

[Previously recorded]

Joe Kelleher: It’s tough to work with people in early recovery because they go through a lot of emotions and their lives are changed. And, you know, sometimes there’s a lot of negativity that goes along with that. But it is something that you kind of have to have a passion for it to work with this population.

[Recording ends]

Alston: And to that point, I think we heard earlier this week from Joe Kelleher that you have to have a master’s degree in order to really be qualified to work in this field. And as we were learning here, master’s degrees are not cheap. So I can only imagine that can sometimes add to the stress of wanting to work in this field and help other people, but also having that financial burden. So Rachel, how new is this? Has anything like this been done before in Massachusetts or anywhere else?

Armany: I’ve been doing a little bit of research just on other states, and I haven’t really seen a lot in this specific realm. I think that we’ve seen a lot of student loan forgiveness talk in general. Obviously, we were talking about that on the federal level. And I know that in Massachusetts, Governor Baker passed a $4 billion pandemic relief bill, and that was in December of last year. That included loan repayment for mental health professionals, but it did not include substance abuse workers specifically.

This is specifically dedicated to those workers because those are the workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic. They had this meeting for the Opioid Recovery and Remediation Council, and, lawmakers and first responders and all these people were testing and talking about this, and they were saying these are the people who are on the front lines of the other pandemic that we’ re dealing with or the epidemic. These are people who are on the front lines, dealing with this.

And I think the conversation naturally tends to fall around residents of substance abuse centers and people who are dealing with addiction themselves. But it’s easy to forget that the workers who are in those positions are also having an emotional toll on them. And they’re also going through a lot of changes, too. This is specifically dedicated to those workers.

“The conversation naturally tends to fall residents around of substance abuse centers and people who are dealing with addiction themselves. But it’s easy to forget that the workers who are in those positions are also having an emotional toll on them.”

-Rachel Armany, GBH News associate producer

Siegel: We’ve been listening to your reporting all week on Morning Edition. You’ve looked at this new funding. You also looked at new funding for a health center in Roxbury. Just this morning, we’ve been hearing your reporting on a new regional food pantry that’s opening in Lynn. I’m curious what your takeaway from this week is, seeing these funds go to these different programs and speaking to the people who work in these industries and how it might affect them.

Armany: Good question. I think that my takeaway is that when funds are distributed on a local level like this, it really does have a large impact. And I think you were just talking about the funding for the Roxbury Center, the Dimock Center. It’s a $1 million investment. And in the grand scheme of things, sometimes people might say that $1 million isn’t a lot of money. But in that room, when I was sitting with those people, they were like, this is going to make a huge difference for us, because they’re creating more stabilization beds for men at the center. And so, even if you can just help a few people with those beds, it makes a huge difference for those people’s lives and it changes their lives forever. So I think that my takeaway is that donations and funding on the local level like this can really have a large impact.

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Source: https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2022/10/07/a-15-million-massachusetts-program-helps-addiction-workers-pay-off-their-student-loans

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