Florida should remove restrictions for peer recovery specialists, behavioral health leader says

Over the course of the pandemic, higher levels of social isolation have taken a toll on Floridians’ behavioral health. In 2020, non-fatal opioid overdoses increased by 40 percent compared to 2019, according to the Florida Dept. of Health. However, some experts say the state overdose death rate increased as much as 62 percent. As the state begins to plan for life after the pandemic, Christine Cauffield, MD, CEO of behavioral health Managing Entity LSF Health Systems, says it’s time to invest in effective behavioral health support systems. That includes easing licensing restrictions for certified recovery peer specialists. 


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“What we’re doing, legislatively, is working to remove some of the restrictions that prevent certified recovery peer specialists from easily entering the workforce because for many, they have criminal backgrounds involving substance use possession and drug usage, and that often prevents them from passing a background screening.”

According to Cauffield, LSF Systems has trained over 300 specialists through its ongoing training institute. They work in various treatment settings, such as OB/GYN clinics, emergency rooms, primary care physician offices, and community mental health centers. 

These specialists have often recovered from substance use disorders themselves. And while some have criminal records relating to drug possession that currently bar them from passing background checks, said Cauffield, training specialists who have lived experiences is the most effective way to help those currently in recovery.

“Individuals that are struggling, for example, with mental health and or substance use disorders, they can really relate to a peer specialist…they have almost a connection of the heart, and communication that they both can engage in and quickly respond to. And it really has improved patient outcomes as a result of having certified recovery specialists, on site, [as] part of the treatment team.”

Although ensuring the presence of peer recovery specialists is integral to improving behavioral health across the state, funding also plays a role in determining the state’s success. Florida ranks very low in behavioral health funding, anywhere from 48th to 50th in the nation, Cauffield said.

“Most individuals coming into a primary care physician’s office are struggling with a mental health and/or substance use disorder, and it’s really driving health care costs up. Our insurance companies are recognizing this fact and are really wanting to increase services and interventions for individuals that are living with mental health and substance use disorder.”

Investing in community-based recovery programs can help divert those struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse from high-cost facilities such as emergency rooms, crisis stabilization units, and detention centers, Cauffield continued. 

Governor Ron DeSantis signed the state budget earlier this month, investing $137.6 million in behavioral health and substance abuse services. The funding will help expand Florida’s 211 network  and provide additional telehealth services for rural communities. However, a recent study from the American Addictions Centers found that Florida had the lowest mental health spending per capita in the nation.