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Katie’s journey with substance use disorder (SUD) has become a familiar story, as recovery can be a long process that includes ups and downs. She experienced SUD for nearly 15 years. Now, Katie recounts her struggles and successes, as she talks one-on-one with other women experiencing SUD. As a wellness and recovery peer specialist, Katie uses her own experience with SUD and recovery to offer them coaching, hope, and support.

Katie is one of several peer support specialists for Empower, a new women’s wellness and recovery program launched in 2023, offered by Carelon Behavioral Health, an Elevance Health company. The program engages women between the ages of 18 and 40. Substance use disorder among women who may become pregnant has contributed to increasing rates of two conditions that occur when newborn babies experience withdrawal from exposure to substances in the womb: neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). According to 2020 data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one baby is diagnosed with NAS every 24 minutes in the United States, which is nearly 22,000 babies a year.

The combination of resources, information, and peer support play a vital role in helping women of reproductive age take action to reduce risks and make healthy lifestyle choices before, during, and after pregnancy.”

Tiffany Inglis, MD

Carelon National Medical Director for Maternal-Child and Women’s Health

The program reduces the prevalence of NAS and NOWS by supporting women of reproductive age who experience SUD, or are diagnosed as high or medium risk for SUD, through non-clinical and digital support.

Using a whole-health approach to facilitate wellness, recovery, and reproductive health, the Empower program helps members with the support to lead their health journey.

“The combination of resources, information, and peer support play a vital role in helping women of reproductive age take action to reduce risks and make healthy lifestyle choices before, during, and after pregnancy,” said Dr. Tiffany Inglis, Carelon national medical director for maternal-child and women’s health.

A peer specialist calls the member and begins to engage them in conversation about how they are doing and their experience with SUD. During that initial call, the peer specialist shares some of their personal experience with SUD, which begins to break down barriers and open dialogue with the member. The peer specialist provides the member with resources, support, and information on SUD and recovery that meets their specific experience and situation.

“Addiction can be so isolating,” Katie said. “It's a crucial part of recovery to find and stay around people that we can relate with and that we can be honest with. If I didn't have that, I don't know where I would be. Counselors and therapists are great, I still go to therapy, but having someone that has been there is such a comfort, and you can really let your walls down.”

Katie’s journey resonates with many of her callers. Her stepdaughter was born with NAS several years ago. She is doing well now, but Katie relates to the experience of caring for a child born with NAS. She also identifies with the feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness associated with SUD, that women often experience.

“They’re often grateful that I was able to call at that moment and they had somebody to talk to and refer them to where they can go for help,” she said. “Of course, there are people who don't want to talk to you, and that's just where they are on their journey. Maybe something I said to them will stick, or they'll call me back in a couple of weeks.”

If a member elects to participate, the peer specialist can connect the member to care with physical and behavioral health providers, recovery specialists, health plan case managers, and can help schedule appointments. Members can also use an app for additional support, with 24/7 access to peer recovery support.

Katie takes her recovery one day at a time. A pivotal point in her journey was her decision to get certified as a peer recovery specialist.

“I have the privilege of interacting with individuals that show such strength and resilience through their recovery,” Katie said. “The power and freedom to have a conversation with someone who has gone through, or is going through, the same thing is immensely healing, and they fill me with so much hope and gratitude in my own life and recovery.”

From helping women connect to care, to helping them access social support services: peer recovery specialists relate to and help navigate the unique experiences of each woman to support them in their recovery.

Katie will never forget her talk with one woman in despair. The woman had begun using substances again because she couldn't find transportation to a methadone clinic. Katie’s actions, providing the woman with a phone number for a clinic and to a transportation service, made a life-changing difference.

“The joy in her voice when I talked to her,” Katie recalled. “She was so happy and proud of herself that she made it to the clinic and that she was sober. She couldn't wait to tell me ‘I did it!’”

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