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Trenton Health Team Awarded $5.2M to Help Improve Substance Abuse Treatment

TRENTON – In an effort to prevent the misuse of alcohol and drugs from developing into full-blown substance abuse, five city clinics will begin screening all patients for drug and alcohol problems when they are treated for other health issues, using a program that has yielded benefits in cities around the country.

Training of clinic staffs is being funded by a five-year, $5.2 million state grant awarded to the Trenton Health Team, the organization said yesterday.

In the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment program, patients coming in for everything from routine checkups to backaches will be questioned about substance abuse issues, Henry J. Austin Health Center medical director Dr. Kemi Alli said.

Alli said she expects 8,750 patients to undergo screening during the program’s first year.

Patients with severe patterns of drug and alcohol abuse will be referred to treatment centers, while patients at risk of developing problems will undergo voluntary counseling at the clinics, Alli said.

“The focus of this, though there is a treatment component, is prevention,” Alli said. “We want to help prevent people from misusing before they get to the abuse stage.”

The grant from the state Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services will go toward hiring social workers and therapists, called “health educators,” to administer the SBIRT program. They will counsel at-risk patients at clinics run by Capital Health, St. Francis Medical Center and the Henry J. Austin Health Center.

The Trenton Health Team went after the competitive SBIRT grant as part of its efforts to treat behavioral health issues at clinics and doctors’ offices, executive director Dr. Ruth Perry said.

“We’re trying to drive the integration of substance abuse and mental health treatment into primary care,” Perry said. “We’re starting with substance abuse, but eventually we want to be able to integrate behavioral health and mental health into primary care and make it so needs can be met in a primary-care facility.”

Leaders of the Trenton Health Team, an alliance of the city and health care providers, began considering the SBIRT program in 2011, Alli said.

“We were investigating all kinds of integrated models, looking at what’s been effective across the country,” Alli said. “This was one of the models that had shown to be very effective.”

The SBIRT program has been used in cities in Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida and other states. In Colorado, a 2009 study found that at-risk patients abused alcohol about 50 percent less frequently after undergoing SBIRT counseling.

The hope is that counseling will prevent an at-risk patient from becoming another undiagnosed alcoholic in the emergency room, Perry said.

“A lot of our emergency department visits are around behavioral health and substance abuse problems, especially alcoholism,” Perry said.

A recent Rutgers Center for State Health Policy study identified Trenton as one of the worst cities in the state for high emergency room use, a problem Perry said the Trenton Health Team is trying to curb by beefing up primary care options in the city.

Before the SBIRT program, substance abuse screenings in Trenton primarily took place at treatment centers, Alli said.

“There are clinics across the country that offer it, but I don’t know of any in New Jersey that offer it,” Alli said. “It’s important because it increases the availability for patients to receive substance abuse prevention services.”

Henry J. Austin’s main clinic on Warren Street began screening all patients over the age of 18 for substance abuse issues on Feb. 1, Alli said. Follow-up screenings will take place once a year.

The SBIRT program will expand to the four additional clinics over the next few months as health educators are hired.

The Trenton Health Team is an alliance of the Henry J. Austin Health Center, Capital Health, St. Francis Medical Center and Trenton’s Department of Health and Human Services.

About the Trenton Health Team
Trenton Health Team (THT) is an alliance of the city’s major providers of healthcare services including Capital Health, St. Francis Medical Center, Henry J. Austin Health Center and the city’s Health Department. In collaboration with residents and the city’s active social services network, THT is developing an integrated healthcare delivery system to transform the city’s fragmented primary care system and restore health to the city. THT aims to make Trenton the healthiest city in the state. Support for the Trenton Health Team was provided in part by a grant from The Nicholson Foundation. For more information, visit