Combatting substance abuse in Virginia


Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently announced a new partnership with Mason that will bring the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment program to the Commonwealth to combat substance abuse and fatal drug overdoses.

The initiative, dubbed VA-SBIRT, will be led by Mason professor Lora Peppard from the School of Nursing and is funded by an $8.3 million federal grant received by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. Peppard, who has worked as a psychiatric nurse practitioner for over a decade, said she will lead an interdisciplinary team of seven composed of Patty Ferssizidis from the Center for Psychological Services; Molly Davis, Carol Cleaveland and Valerie Cuffee from the Department of Social Work; and Robin Brewster, Cathleen Scully and Elizabeth Idris from the School of Nursing.

According to the project grant abstract provided by Peppard, SBIRT will serve approximately 100,000 patients from diverse backgrounds at 11 practice sites throughout the state. The abstract adds that each practice site will have a three-person team that will train the personnel and work to integrate SBIRT data into existing electronic health records, though the infrastructure of this technology is still being developed.

VA-SBIRT started in Virginia Oct. 1, 2016, and the first group of practice sites will be screening patients by Feb. 1, 2017, Peppard said. The project will continue for five years, she added.

SBIRT is an evidence-based procedure produced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to the project grant abstract. It has been implemented in 29 states since 2003, many in partnership with state universities, and in the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I fully recognized the need for the SBIRT public health approach in my practice and enjoy training the future workforce through our training grant,” Peppard said about the program. “The state grant allows our team an opportunity to make a different type of impact by supporting primary care clinics and emergency departments in their integration of SBIRT, which has lasting benefits.”

There are three general components to the SBIRT program, according to the abstract. First, patients are screened to identify the existence and severity of a substance abuse disorder. After the screening, patients are educated about the abuse and the possible consequences and are then referred to appropriate treatment programs or advised on how to change their behaviors. SBIRT is considered a public-health alternative to treating substance abuse, as opposed to a criminal justice approach.

A 2015 report from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services found that alcohol is the most used and most abused drug across the country and in the state of Virginia, with over 6 percent of the population needing but not receiving treatment. Almost 8 percent of Virginians used illicit drugs in the last year, and almost 5 percent used pain relievers for nonmedical reasons. According to the report, the most common source of referral to treatment was from the criminal justice system.

McAuliffe has been proactive in the past about combating the issue of substance abuse in the state, and established a task force in 2014 to combat heroin and prescription drug abuse.
“Prescription painkiller and heroin abuse is a nationwide problem, and is spreading rapidly across the Commonwealth. We must take immediate action in Virginia, or these terrible trends will continue to ravage our families, our businesses and our economy,” McAuliffe said in a press release in 2014.