When General Electric Co. announced in January that it would move its global headquarters to Boston, executives pledged that the company would make health care a top philanthropic priority. So, GE officials embarked on a statewide listening tour to discover the greatest need.
Time and again, clear and chilling, the answer was opioids.
Now, only months later, what began as a simple desire to bolster the opioid fight has led to on-the-ground reinforcements and commitments of big money for the embattled front lines of the epidemic.
The money will come through part of a $15 million gift that GE plans to invest in community health, and the reinforcements already are arriving. A $700,000 slice of that gift is adding new staff to a Boston Medical Center program that helps community health centers improve their response to addiction.
“They did their homework,” said Colleen LaBelle. who directs the Boston Medical Center program. “They really want to get involved.”
The extra staff is expected to be a windfall for a program stretched to the breaking point as it provides training in addiction treatment and technical assistance to about 30 community health centers across the state.
The training will educate workers at the health centers — everyone from front-office staff, to the person who answers the phones, to clinicians — about the broad range of medical and lifestyle needs that opioid abusers can bring to the door, LaBelle said.
“We try to teach the staff about the disease, why people have these behaviors,” she said.
The grant will pay salaries and benefits for two years for a coordinator and two part-time nurse trainers, as well as help hire clinical consultants, LaBelle added.
“We want our money to have the greatest impact,” Dr. David Barash, executive director of global health programs for the GE Foundation,’’ said at the company’s temporary headquarters near Fort Point Channel. “We’re a company that believes in being engaged in the community.”
Overall, GE has announced $50 million in Boston-based philanthropy that will include $25 million for education and $10 million for diversity efforts.
So far, the opioid epidemic has defied the escalating efforts to curb its rampage through Massachusetts. Instead, more people are dying, stronger opioids are hitting the streets, and health workers cannot keep up with the surging demand for treatment.
“We’ve never seen the level of devastation to people and families that we’ve seen in the last two years,” said James Hunt Jr., president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. “This is affecting every community in the Commonwealth.”
Hunt said General Electric is approaching the epidemic as a problem that needs to be worked, not just as a worthy drop box for a big donation.
“It certainly sets a very positive example for philanthropy occupying new territory,” Hunt said. “Not just by trying to replicate what’s already happening, but by trying to create new approaches.”
Barash said GE’s approach to philanthropy is influenced by a calculating business mind-set. “We really do think like investors,” Barash said.
That means searching for options that work, and then remaining committed and accessible as the work proceeds.
“We don’t just issue a grant and say good luck and walk away,” Barash said. “We embed ourselves with our partners.”
General Electric officials said they will provide ongoing support and technical assistance to health providers once they are trained, and also seek ways to bolster that support through technology. Other priorities include increased outreach to the underserved and more training for specialty care, according to Susan Bishop, a General Electric spokeswoman.
The company, in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital, recently sponsored a “hack-a-athon” in Boston, where participants brainstormed and competed for five grants of $1,000 each to pursue their ideas.
Kevin Woghiren, who works in cybersecurity for GE, won one of the prizes. Through his idea, an addict or someone in need could quickly find the location of a shelter, food pantry, or needle exchange through the inexpensive use of text messaging. Family, friends, and even passersby also could use the system to help.
“It provides anonymous access to key resources, and secondly it gets the community of people around us involved to find resources,” said Woghiren, a 28-year-old from Medford.
General Electric also is working with the League of Community Health Centers to develop a pilot program that would supplement the Boston Medical Center effort by using health-center physicians to educate peers and their staffs around the state.
These physicians also would “share their knowledge and experience in managing patient pain and integrating mental-health and addiction treatment,” said Kerin O’Toole, spokeswoman for the league. “People with mental health disorders often have substance-use disorders and vice versa.”
General Electric, she said, “understands the importance of addressing the full continuum of addiction.”