Who gets to call themselves a recovery coach?
Even in the midst of a raging opioid epidemic, Massachusetts now lets just about anyone market themselves as a coach to help people claw back from addiction.
“It’s like the Wild West,” an official at a treatment facility on Cape Cod told the Globe in November. Not surprisingly, accounts of unscrupulous or unprepared coaches have emerged, preying on vulnerable families desperate for help.
But that would start to change if the Legislature passes a bill proposed by Governor Baker that would lead to professional standards for recovery coaches. Even as the state seems to be making modest progress fighting opioid addiction, the bill contains crucial reforms to keep up the pressure.
Ideally, recovery coaches can play a life-saving role. Navigating the health care system is challenging — especially for those in the throes of addiction.
“Often what happens is, a person may get three days of detox and then a piece of paper with a bunch of numbers to call to continue treatment, so there are those big gaps in treatments,” said Marylou Sudders, the state secretary of Health and Human Services. Recovery coaches help patients fill out forms, apply for services, find sober houses, and endure the ups and downs of recovery. Many of the most effective coaches are recovering addicts themselves, allowing them to build rapport with patients.
Professional licensing would give recovery coaches the recognition they deserve, and could make it easier for them to get reimbursed by insurance companies for their services. Hopefully, it would also help weed out unqualified or unethical operators.
STAT News, an affiliated publication of the Boston Globe, has documented the questionable practices of some who claim to help addicts but seem more interested in milking insurance companies. In other cases, coaches’ own struggles with addiction may flare back up.
Baker’s legislation reflects an awareness that substance use disorder must be treated as a chronic, long-term disease. For the first time in years, Massachusetts has seen a slight decline in opioid deaths, but state officials caution that it’s too soon to call the downtick a trend. The decline may be a reflection of increased availability of Naloxone, the drug used to reverse narcotic overdoses, rather than a decline in actual addiction or overdoses. And the increased availability of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — continues to deprive too many people with substance use disorders of second chances.
Professional recovery coaches are in such a new field that they have no national standards. More than 20 states regulate coaches in some way, though. For specialists assuming a life-and-death role in the lives of vulnerable patients, it’s a reasonable requirement that the Legislature should embrace.