FARGO - A new state-funded voucher program is meant to give North Dakota residents struggling with addiction the option of receiving drug and alcohol treatment from a private provider close to home.
But for now, the program's success hinges on whether more treatment providers will decide to start accepting patients with vouchers.
Since the program was launched July 1, only three providers have applied to take part, said Pam Sagness, director of the state Behavioral Health Division. The Heartview Foundation in Bismarck and Sharehouse in Fargo have been authorized to treat patients with vouchers, and a third provider in Grand Forks has applied but has not yet been approved, she said.
Sagness touted the voucher program as "a huge step forward," saying it addresses gaps in the state's addiction treatment system and gives lower-income patients a choice in where they receive inpatient and outpatient treatment.
"We certainly are hoping that providers will sign up and that individuals will access this voucher, so that they can get timely access to services," she said.
No patients have been given vouchers yet, but Sharehouse and Heartview will begin accepting patients through the program this week. Patients must meet income requirements to be eligible. Those who have health insurance but can't afford the cost of treatment may qualify.
The state Legislature set aside $750,000 to fund the voucher program from July 2016 through June 2017, but that amount was recently slashed to $375,000 as part of the budget cuts ordered by Gov. Jack Dalrymple. If the money runs out before June 2017, no more vouchers will be issued until more funds are allocated, Sagness said.
For years, North Dakotans without money to pay a private provider have been able to get drug and alcohol treatment at one of the state-funded regional human service centers.
At times, some centers have had wait lists for treatment. But officials hope the voucher system will eliminate those lists by letting patients receive immediate treatment from private providers.
Sagness said the voucher program also has the potential to allow a rural patient who lives in, say, Hazen, to obtain treatment from a nearby private provider rather than having to drive over an hour to the closest human service center in Bismarck. But right now, that's just a potential because no rural providers have applied to be part of the program.
Sagness said the state is encouraging rural providers to apply, but it may be that some simply have as many patients as they can handle. And she said some providers have noted that the voucher program puts an administrative burden on them because they have to take time to enroll patients in the program.
"A lot of providers are actually just one-man shops," she said. "So anytime that they're not in a billable service, you know, it also is a revenue issue for them."
With Heartview taking part in the program, Bismarck-area residents can now receive state-funded inpatient treatment close to home. Previously, the only option for state-funded inpatient treatment was through the Robinson Recovery program at Sharehouse in Fargo.
Allowing patients to get treatment in their communities is considered a best practice because they can be closer to their families and build bonds that will help them later in recovery, Sagness said.