In this episode we’re joined by Beau Mann, the Founder, President, and CEO of Sober Grid, a social networking app created for the sober community. Beau will be going over what inspired him to create Sober Grid, how it works, and some of his favorite features. Following Beau we have guest Charles Aull, the Public Policy Manager at Greater Louisville Inc, joining us to talk about the impact of the opioid epidemic has had on Kentucky and what the Louisville Chamber of Commerce is currently doing to help.
Welcome to Recovery Radio by Landmark Recovery with your host, Zach Crouch. In this program we’ll discuss the root causes and treatments of alcohol and substance addiction, speak with experts in related fields, and help navigate the road to recovery.
Now, here’s the host of Recovery Radio, Zach Crouch.
Zach: Hi. I’m Zach Crouch and you’re listening to Landmark Recovery Radio, your source for addiction and recovery news and knowledge. You can find us online wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to subscribe to get the most up-to-date information from leading experts.
We have guest Beau Mann joining us on the show today. Beau serves as Founder, President, and CEO of Sober Grid. They are a digital health company for people in or seeking a recovery from substance use disorders. Beau is an entrepreneur who has started and advised several digital companies. He’s a member of the Forbes Technology Council and has been on numerous TV, radio, and print publications which include The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur magazine as well as Forbes.
He most recently launched a successful digital health platform Sober Grid, which has been adopted in over a hundred countries and uses artificial intelligence to predict relapses and intervene. He currently serves on the advisory board of InvestAcure, a New York-based microfinance app founded to provide a way to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Beau, thank you so much for joining us today.
Beau: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Zach: You created Sober Grid after noticing a gap in the market for sober people to connect digitally. Did you have any prior connection to recovery before this?
Beau: I did, I did and it’s interesting. When I first started in it, I should go back and say when I was in my early 20’s, around 24 I was diagnosed as having substance use disorder and entered into recovery. I used peer support as one mechanism in my journey in recovery.
When I was around 30 I was at a film festival and it was the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and I wanted to connect with other men and women that were sober in order to grab a cup of coffee or go to one of the film screenings, really wanting to not be forced to go into activities that were focused around alcohol.
With that background that was the genesis behind Sober Grid and that’s what led up to it. When it started, it was more of a social networking and then from there we grew into advancing it beyond the social connectivity portion.
Zach: Fantastic. I’ve heard this before and I had to find a study that proves this, but I’ve been made aware at least that success in recovery especially early on in the process for people, even when they go to meetings the people that go to meetings or participating in their recovery but also do things as you mentioned having a cup of coffee with people who are in the recovery process who are like-minded they do better. They do a lot better. I think that’s a pretty important thing.
Beau: I think you’re right. I think the research is out there about having this positive social connectivity and community could really lead to improved outcomes and I think that’s really one of the fundamental aspects of Sober Grid. It’s about connecting with this positive social community of people that have the same diagnosis and in working together in your journey towards recovery and by being amongst each other and supporting one another it improves the health outcomes.
Zach: That’s what we all want. As I mentioned in the intro, Sober Grid has been adopted in over a hundred countries and uses AI. This is fascinating — to predict relapses and intervene. I’m really curious about what that actually means. Can you explain a little bit to our listeners what Sober Grid does?
Beau: Absolutely. We grew and I think we are possibly, if not the largest, one of the largest mobile communities of people with substance use disorder. As you said, we’ve in over a hundred countries. I think we’re 170 today. We have about a quarter of a million registered members. Essentially what we do is with that came a lot of data. People post in the news feed and they really communicate inside the app significantly so there was a lot of text data.
We’re back and forth with National Institute of Health, NIH and they funded a project where we worked with researchers from Harvard Medical School and University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine researchers. We used natural link processing so taking the text inside the app and working with deep-learning algorithms. We were able to accurately predict whether or not an individual is approaching a higher risk of relapse.
Yes. We came up and demonstrated capabilities in phase one. Now we’re in phase two, which the NIH has funded and still working with researchers from Harvard Med School and Perelman School of Medicine and we’re looking to incorporate that in the live version of the app. We’re really, really, really excited about that.
Zach: Talk to me a little bit more. What are some of the predictors that you’re finding for relapse?
Beau: Yes, yes. It’s interesting. What we’re seeing is foul language is a predictor and so you can do is you can look and say, “I have to do this in context” is how we come up with that. If you look at the baseline, you look at…
Zach: Beau, in order to be clear, I want to cut you off. You said foul language. Is that correct?
Beau: Yes, yes.
Zach: Okay, okay.
Beau: As in profanity. What we do is let’s say that we take first as a baseline to see that was the date of relapse for a thousand people. We look and we look at that language and if there’s a significant enough number of times that foul language came up and then it provides a signal that that’s a predictive indicator and then you mine the data and then you run it through algorithms.
You come up with these signals and you can combine the signals to have these predictor capabilities. You refine it. We have an internal senior data scientist that is really a smart guy that helps. He was part of the team that came up with vaccinations for Hepatitis-C and just really smart data scientist in healthcare. We work with our data scientist and research partners from the medicals schools as well.
Zach: Got it.
Beau: We look at the signals and you’ll see things that for me part of my journey in recovery and I recognize everyone is just different and there are multiple pathways to recovery, but mine was using a 12-Step support group. It still is today.
I would hear things that I’m seeing some of the research was interesting. If you look at virtuality that really helps fill a positive indicator that someone’s leading to relapse. It’s really clean science with using data and science and research to identify some of the things that we’ve touched and make it evidence-based through scientific research and then develop other signals or indications that help come up with this relapse risk work.
The interesting thing there that you’ll find really to be helpful is that you can have these great predictive capabilities but you need to be able to do something about it if you can’t forget that someone’s at high risk.
Beau: What we did was we acquired this tele-health company. It’s a state-certified addiction and mental health recovery coaches that was founded in Cleveland called Ascent. It was founded by a non-profit in part with the help of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Now the coaches can reach out and say hey, offer their support and hopefully it reduces the relapse rates and the overdose and therefore death rates. It’s really using data for social good and social impact.
Zach: Talk to me a little bit more about the foul language piece. Is that a number one predictor or are there other factors that you look towards when relapse is a possibility for folks?
Beau: It’s interesting. We’re actually doing more research and scientific work on this. I don’t know that foul language is the number one, but foul language could also be associated and this is where our researchers are looking more into with that is anger. If anger, depression and anger and different sort of states has shown to have these predictive capabilities or signals that an impending relapse is there to occur.
There are a number of signals and then combining the foul language with someone’s sadness. One of the things that shows one is likely to be successful that comes up often is university. Studies show that someone is less likely. Looking at these words and we have a lot of these signals in trying to further refine, we use signals to further refine and then also a couple of some of the indicators and try to get an even deeper understanding of that.
Zach: Is this mostly self-report? They have the app on their phone and then they’ll go through a series of questions I’m assuming and based on the responses they will then get, as you said a relapse risk score. What are some of the other features or functions of Sober Grid?
Beau: Yes. To answer your question through parts, part A we do not provide the risk score to the end-user right now. We did it in a study and we kept them internal to scientists looking at this information in phase one, but now we’re rolling out phase two. We’re considering whether or not to inform the end-user that they are at a high risk. We do plan on telling the coaches so the coaches can reach out and offer their support [Inaudible][12:07] application.
We have a sobriety calculator. We have contingency management practices so individuals get these badges. We also have these daily quests that an individual can do each day so there’s a gratitude list. There’s a daily recovery…
Zach: So important, by the way that piece that you mentioned about gratitude. As you well know, if you’re in the recovery process which you are and you mentioned spirituality being a big piece of what makes people move more towards recovery then gratitude’s got to be the top of that list.
Beau: Yes, yes, absolutely. One of the things [Inaudible][12:53]
Zach: Hey, Beau you’re kind of breaking up on me. Are you there?
Beau: Oh, my apologies. I had moved locations so my apologies about that.
Zach: No, you’re fine.
Beau: Oh, okay. I was saying one of the reasons that we have in research and development departments is we believe the same thing that you just said which is if you do a gratitude list every day that’s helpful. We want to put evidence-based science behind it and show and look at the data and show that individuals that did that show to have less relapse or improve health outcomes. It’s really important to do that.
The third quest is to engage with someone on the application because our research has shown us that the more connections you have on the app, the more friends and the more that you use the application and engage in the app the less chances…that your health outcome’s improved.
Zach: I’m curious also because this seems just such a great tool Sober Grid. Have you guys partnered up with other treatment facilities to use this or is this still in the developmental stages so that you can refine it and get it to where you want it?
Beau: We’re always developing because we have this R and D unit, but we’ve been out in market for about five years but we still have this new development. We’ll continue in the next few years to come out with new technologies, new products and services so we’ll always release new things.
One example of that is, to answer the second part of your question about working with providers we’re actually live in a treatment center in a clinical trial right now which is also funded by the National Institute of Health. We’re partnered with a digital therapeutic company called Trip. That is out in California and they have work reality meditation.
In this clinical trial at this treatment center we are providing patients that they can do the Trip meditation, work reality meditation twice a day for a few minutes and then they can also participate in the recovery coaching and then we give free recovery app itself. We’re looking to see how that improves outcomes once they discharge from the treatment provider that we follow and we’ll be looking to do this over the next two years in this clinical trial.
Zach: Excellent. Let’s talk a little bit more about the recovery coaching part of the app. How does that work? I mentioned earlier and you did, too this idea of having a relapse risk score. Sort of my inclination is to think that as a person gets closer to that higher risk of relapse that recovery coaches would then probably intervene more, but I don’t know how it works. I guess I’ll ask the question. How does recovery coaching work on the app.
Beau: Yes, absolutely. An individual can get a recovery coach inside the application. They are available 24/7. They go through training and certification by the mandatory guidelines. They support multiple pathways of recovery which is what Sober Grid leads in and what are member base is comprised of. They are available by phone call or by text. When someone joins ideally they would be in this program for a year but they can do it month-to-month if they’re joining for any length of time that they think is best for them.
The individual can choose a coach and work with that coach. The coach will help them develop a recovery plan. A coach is not a clinician by any means so individuals generally feel more at ease when they communicate with someone who has lived the experience as opposed to a clinician. The clinician will help them and share their lived experience.
If they would like to develop a recovery plan and work towards that, the coach will help and stand as they stay on the journey that they choose to try to improve their minute impulses specifically with substance use disorder.
Zach: Awesome. Here at Landmark we provide a program that’s abstinence-based. It’s obviously one approach. There are multiple approaches to, as you mentioned the pathway to recovery. There’s harm reduction being one of those. Does your app work with various kinds of treatment approaches? That’s the first question. The second question would be does your approach change if that’s the case.
Beau: Yes. The app itself is people that are in or seeking recovery. It could people that are seeking recovery through Smart Recovery or Celebrate Recovery or just work with a therapist and use the community. Some make use of 12-Step paths. Whichever pathway that they choose, or it could be mindfulness or could be a combination of all of those. It could be that they do this cognitive behavioral therapy approach of Smart Recovery with some aspects of Heroin Anonymous.
These pathways are all different for different people and we support all of those including harm reduction. It could be someone is really addicted to benzos but they don’t want to stop their nicotine addiction or they don’t want to stop their smoking marijuana. Different people have kind of different pathways and we support them all. Some of the coaches do and so does the app.
The app itself is really a platform and it just brings people together. One of the things that I did very intentionally was knowing that I myself, my ideal recovery path is in line with abstinence for me. We are not being prescribed medication that would be harmful.
I’ve been a participant in 12-Step communities for a number of years. Very intentionally, I knew that I did not want to limit the platform to just catering to people that were choosing my path or my pathways. That was challenging to do because sometimes there are different schools of thought, but I think it’s really, really important to have one community where everyone comes together and respects each other’s pathway.
Zach: I couldn’t agree more. As we’ve been talking and we’re getting into a lot of the subject about your app and the wonderful work that you guys are doing, one of the things at Landmark that’s sort of our true north, our goal is going to live well beyond me. Our goal is to save a million lives, a million families’ lives, for that matter in a hundred years. That’s the heart of our mission. Does Sober Grid have a mission of some kind that you could share with this and our listeners?
Beau: Absolutely. Our mission is to help people around the world that are struggling with substance use disorders and to help as many people as we can. Looking at my vision I envision drawing that to be millions of people all around the world. What we say is that we want to help contribute also to the scientific and research community as far as addiction goes and we also want to try to help people find the right care at the right time for the right person.
Zach: Fantastic. What about your program about Sober Grid, what’s your favorite feature?
Beau: By far, it’s the burning desire button which is a button that’s sort of an SOS.
Beau: What that means is that “Hey, look. I’m in need and I need some support.” When you press that, it notifies others nearby in your community. Being a tech entrepreneur you have all the different things that happen that you can celebrate and milestones you meet and exciting, exciting things. I remember several years ago, I’d say three or four years ago. I was really feeling like I needed some support. I press the burning desire button.
I was in San Francisco for a healthcare conference. I pressed the burning desire button and within half an hour there was someone joining me at a coffee shop to just sit down and talk and offering me support and places where I could go for meetings and meet other people in San Francisco and have a nice time amongst a sober community. That was incredible.
I remember turning to my partner and saying, “Out of all these things even being in The New York Times or hitting this milestone or this milestone, this is the most significant thing in my career at this country or any continent just to see anytime, anyone need support they press the button and they have someone there to help them.”
Zach: I love it. I want to put this out there, Beau and to our listeners as well. I think there’s a lot to be said about being in this field. It’s a privilege to be able to help people. With that, there are also a lot of people who are in the recovery process as well. I think though that what can happen sometimes because there is such a demand for people to get into recovery and also it’s hard work.
There’s just no question about it. It’s hard work talking to families, talking to patients, the day-in and day-out of helping someone get on their feet and get their lives going in a good direction. I think it’s real easy for us who are providing these services for our lives to really get out of balance at different times.
Beau: Agree, agree. Yes, I think so. I think that’s easy to do. I know coming from starting a tech company. Startups are all-encompassing. I think that would apply to my startup in the behavioral healthcare space more broadly. I think keeping a balance is really, really important. For those that have started companies they know it’s so many hours. It’s so much time to really try to have to develop ways that you can keep a balance as far as the demands that comes from starting businesses.
Zach: I think everybody could use one of those, as you said SOS buttons because I have a feeling, I have a sort of inclination that when you press that, my guess is that you probably found some ways after pressing that and having that cup of coffee with that support person to maybe get a little bit more reconnected to your own process of recovery.
Beau: Yes, it’s a great point. I think absolutely it did. It’s connected me more to my community in the app on the business side; for my personal side, definitely connected me more to my community and sober brothers and sisters walking this journey.
Zach: Awesome. I want to talk just a little bit lastly about what the public response has been since you’ve launched Sober Grid. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Beau: Absolutely. We’ve had a great response from the public. We have a lot of people that applaud what we’re doing, making this app free so that people could connect with one another. The coaching is not free but for the first three or four years we just built this tech business that was at that time wasn’t self-supporting so now it’s geared to be.
A lot of people applauded the social impact that we’re making in the world like making people all around the world from different walks of life and in different paths in recovery. A lot of places have written great things about us, the hot new app and really, really it’s been rewarding to see a public response built in the medium from families and/or end-users.
Zach: This has been great. You said that you sit on, this is kind of off-topic but you said that you sit on an advisory board for InvestAcure and you guys are looking for a way to cure Alzheimer’s. Can you talk at all about how that’s going?
Beau: Sure. InvestAcure is a microfinance company that enables people to contribute spare change so money that therefore can be used to advance research and development for treatments for Alzheimer’s. The CEO has been very, very successful at launching and creating this company over the last few years. I am incredibly proud of him and I think he’s going to do magnificent work in the world. I think by enabling people in the public to contribute to that in the early stage is really phenomenal. I have a lot of admiration for him.
Zach: Very good. Beau, I just want to thank you for coming on the show today. I really appreciate all of this information. This has been great.
Zach: Your source for addiction and recovery news and knowledge. You can find us online wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to subscribe to get the most up-to-date information from leading experts.
We have guest Charles Aull joining us on the show today. Charles is the Public Policy Manager at Greater Louisville, Inc., also known as the Chamber of Commerce. He formerly served as the Director of the State Legislators Project for Ballotpedia and as the Chief Researcher for The Almanac of American Politics. Charles will be giving us some insights into the role of local governments in creating policies to help combat the harmful effects of addiction in the communities.
Charles, thanks a lot. I appreciate you being on the show.
Charles: Yes, glad to be here.
Zach: Tell me a little bit more about yourself and what kind of drew you to pursue a career in public policy.
Charles: Yes. I took kind of an odd path to get where I am. Nowadays a lot of people that are in government affairs that do public policy work they tend to come from legal background or political background. I actually came here from academia. I did a PhD in history thinking a lot about how governments work, what makes government successful and picked up all these kinds of things and tied at a few different universities and then worked for a little while as more of a policy analyst continuing to think about things from a very academic fashion.
What attracted me to that in the first place was really this concept of solving difficult problems and thinking about difficult problems, but when you do that in an academic setting it tends to be very abstract. Not to belittle any academics out there, the impact is something you don’t quite feel when you’re doing that kind of work.
Zach: Pretty sheltered environment, right?
Charles: It can be. It can be a little sheltered. You can tend to kind of talk to yourself in a closet. If you know what I mean, you’re talking, no one’s really listening that type of thing.
Zach: Kind of an echo chamber, right?
Charles: Absolutely. The policy created an opportunity for me to translate that desire for tackling big complicated problems and thinking about difficult issues into something that is more meaningful and something that I think is more impactful. One of the things that every once in a while when I’m doing my job or if I’m working from Frankfurt or working in DC or wherever it might be, sometimes it doesn’t dawn on me that I’m helping craft policy or I’m advocating for policy that could really reshape people’s lives.
I try to keep in mind that that’s not always for the better if we did this wrong. I could really hurt somebody. That pressure really energizes me. It’s one of those things that gets me up every morning and gets me thinking.
Zach: Great. It’s a passion for you. Yes, yes.
Charles: Yes, absolutely. I’ll add a little to that. With a lot of the work that I do, I do a lot of work on tax policy. I do a lot of work on environmental and energy type issues. At GLI we kind of have to touch everything, but something we are and me personally I’m particular tied about it ways that we can give individuals second chances. I know that’s something that’s important to your organization.
Zach: Yes, it is.
Charles: It’s important to me because I’m somebody that’s benefited from having my own second chances throughout life where I was a kid, really as a young adult I got into a lot of trouble. I had plenty of run-ins with the law. I actually ended up getting kicked out of high school. I got kicked out of high school and got put into alternative school. That gave me a second chance.
I remember sitting down with the director of that alternative school who said, “I don’t really care where you’ve been, what you’ve done. Here’s the path forward if you’re interested in it.” Having that second chance allowed me to become the first person in my family to go to college, graduate from college, got a PhD. I own a house now. None of that would have happened if somebody hadn’t just offered me that second chance.
Zach: A hundred percent and I hear how that’s impacted you certainly with this gentleman or lady or whoever it was that said that to you the second chance piece. I want to go back at more of a macro level here to bigger level in terms of second chances. You said that you’re really interested in what makes governments successful. I’m curious about if you can expand on that in terms of what makes government successful in terms of working with people in my world — substance use treatment and mental health.
What has to happen you think from your purview to make places like us and other organizations treating these people successful with support from the government?
Charles: It’s pretty simple to be honest with you. Government has to listen to experts and the vice-versa of that is kind of a part as well. Experts in turn need to listen. The government and for that matter politicians in sort of processing the political dynamics, if we can establish a good equilibrium then we can accomplish good policy.
This is something that’s tricky nowadays sometimes. Experts like yourself, folks who have a really in-depth, on-the-ground understanding of the challenges of addiction if they’re not communicating with individuals creating law and policy-makers then policy-makers will either just ignore the problem which is terrible or they will try to make a policy on their own which can often be worse.
At the same time, it has to be a two-way dialogue where policy-makers are balancing the concerns of experts against a whole host of other concerns. That needs to be done in a very delicate manner, but I will stress that first part probably the most. We have to listen to our experts.
At GLI, this is something we try to emphasize working with business community is we tell businesses and folks that we represent, “You have to be in communication with lawmakers. They need to understand the nuances of this problem and we need to craft legislation and government policy in such a way that it recognizes the nuances; otherwise, we’re going to create gaps. We’re going to create unintended consequences.” That’s when things really go sideways.
Zach: Stuff gets lost in translation pretty easily it sounds like.
Charles: Yes, yes.
Zach: What’s happened so far that you’ve seen be successful in that sort of interchange between government and the local experts on the ground and are there things that you’ve maybe even seen other states do that we’re not doing that we could try to do to facilitate this tandem effort a little bit further?
Charles: I think one of the places where you’re really seeing…I think that’s what’s been driving these conversations in a whole lot of different areas that kind of despite what you might…I think the more common narrative is all this chaos and everything like that when it comes to government. Expertise is driving government policy in a lot of different ways. One area though that I was focused on is criminal justice reform which is a topic I spend a significant amount of my professional time.
Zach: Yes, we talked about that a little bit. Yes.
Charles: Yes, yes. For a long time, I do think that our criminal justice system was shaped by only a certain set of experts, mostly just straight from the law enforcement perspective. Law enforcement absolutely they have all expertise in the area of criminal justice, but collectively I don’t think policy-makers were listening to all the different perspectives…
Charles: Yes, we were kind of just focusing on this sort of tough on crime approach so it’s coming from that law enforcement side. I do think there’s been a shift to where we’re now hearing more from addiction experts just as an example, behavioral experts, mental health experts who are bringing their side of the story in the conversation. I really think they’re being heard and that’s driving this big push for criminal justice reform.
I would say it’s not only them but jailers, people who actually spend time in these facilities. They understand what life’s like.
Zach: Yes, the dynamics of it.
Charles: Absolutely. Those voices are being heard a lot more than I think they have in the past. I think that has contributed to a shift in how states throughout the country are approaching and not just states but so is the government and how they’re approaching criminal justice.
Zach: Yes because I don’t know the percentage, but I’m sure it’s very high of people who are locked up currently for non-violent drug offenses.
Charles: That’s right. People with some sort of drug offense make up the vast majority of folks that are currently incarcerated and the vast majority of those people will also leave prison or leave jail at some point, too. It is absolutely imperative that those folks get the type of treatment that they need. Just simply walking them up to the cell, you can’t punish somebody into recovery.
Zach: Yes, you can’t.
Charles: You can’t punish someone for addiction. That’s what we’ve tried to do for a really long time now in this country and in this state. I think people universally agree that’s not working. Again, inviting folks with real experience on how to address, whether it’s behavioral issues or addiction issues bringing them to the table and having them have a voice when it comes to government policy is a really helpful thing.
Zach: I think, too, Charles the whole concept of rehabilitation I think that that term has gotten so misused and misunderstood because what does it really mean anymore. What are we really rehabilitating by having someone behind bars for months, years, whatever it is? In the eyes of people who I think really understand addiction as a matter of fact would say that what good is this doing someone rehabilitation-wise. What are they learning in their new?
What are they getting in terms of the rehab from substances? What’s the approach? Is it effective? Those are kinds of questions at least from my purview that would be very important for me for legislators, jailers, those people that you named to really take a hard look at. I think that they are, but I don’t think that we’re there yet.
Charles: I would agree with that. I think if you talked to most jailers in this state for example, they’ll tell you they have a strong interest in that. They want that type of programming within their facilities. It is a resource issue for a lot of the counties in particular because one of the problems they’re dealing with is this massive overcrowding. I know I talked to counties where they say, “We’d love to develop these types of programs that you see in other states.”
They say the rooms where you can conduct something like that are currently full of beds. Places where they would normally have some sort of communal space those have bunks in them now.
Zach: There’s no room. Right.
Charles: There’s literally no physical room in all of these places. With the current crisis that we’re into right now, those resources are going to become more scarce. I think what that means we just have to get more creative.
Charles: Hopefully, drive us more towards addressing larger root issues namely some folks probably shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place which is a root issue that I think a lot of people are starting to wrap their heads around now.
Zach: Right. I got to tell you. I did a volunteer day at the Louisville Metro Jail here. I have to tell you it was really rewarding to see the smiles on a lot of these guys’ faces.
At the same time you know that there was a couple of the gentlemen there that I talked with and a lot of the professionals there that were working who were saying, “There are a lot of mentally-ill people in jail right now,” who are there as you mentioned it’s an overcrowded place who don’t know how to navigate through some of the dynamics of jail much less the social part of it.
That’s a very big challenge for people who have mental illness, much less severe mental illness which I’m sure that there’s quite a few of those people locked up, too.
Charles: Yes, absolutely. It’s a very fundamental issue. I feel in Kentucky I’m hoping that we can start figuring out some of these states that are kind of doing something that we think might be scalable for us right now, but again one of the concerns I do have and not to keep coming back to the current crisis we’re dealing with is one of the concerns that we’ll have to confront before too long is we have a lot of momentum pushing in this direction of addressing things like the opioid crisis, like addressing criminal justice reform.
I think it’s really unclear now where that energy is at the moment given that our attention is so focused elsewhere right now. It’s something that I think folks that are actually involved in this space they’ll going to sort of have to navigate this new world that we’re entering into right now to make sure we are continuing to focus on the problems we were tackling before this whole new problem came along and not lose sight of these things.
We’re going to have to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time I think and it’s going to be difficult.
Zach: I want to talk a little bit about the opioid crisis. You brought that up. What are some of the things that the Chamber of Commerce Louisville, the Louisville Chamber of Commerce is doing currently to help with that epidemic?
Charles: That’s a great question. I will say this. One thing that a lot of the addiction professionals that we have worked with is they actually kind of pushed us to stop thinking specifically about the opioid crisis and encouraging us to think more broadly about substance use in general trying to get us to think…
Zach: Yes, addiction.
Charles: Yes. We’ve really taken that to heart. One of the things though that we’re always sensitive to as a Chamber is there are a lot of great organizations out there doing really good work within our community and within Kentucky. We very much like to avoid duplication. We try to figure out what’s our lane. Where’s the place where we can kind of carve out a path how to make impacts and fill that gap that’s not been filled?
One of the things that we’ve really focused on is the importance of employment to individuals who are in recovery or who have been going through treatment or coming out of treatment because we know and you know how important that structure of employment is to having a successful recovery. It’s a big thing. This is last year now. We started a group. We call it Barriers to Work Think Tank to kind of think about the different barriers that people face when it comes to employment.
We tried to think about it from a whole host of different perspectives, but a lot of these barriers do coalesce around individuals who have histories of addiction because addiction is such a wrecking ball that it ends up creating [Inaudible][46:46] in your life. Things such as you might not have a car. Chances are, there’s a decent chance you’re going to have a criminal background. You might have children without any sort of support network to help you find care for those children.
We really focused on what can we do to help alleviate some of those barriers particularly for people with addiction issues that can kind of give them a fighting chance. Now with my work in particular a lot of that has focused on the public policy side of things.
We do have business partners who also are just stepping up trying to figure out what they can do without governmental action to sort of support these efforts, but public policy is a place where you get a lot of bang for your buck. You can get a big return on investment if you can sort of make changes to these larger structural things that are shaping society, whether that’s increased funding for public transportation.
We’re making a big push this year for increased funding for child care services in the state because child care is such a massive barrier to work for people who want to work.
Zach: Right, right.
Charles: It’s an extremely expensive thing. Criminal justice reform has been a huge focus. If you’re an individual with a history of addiction and you have a criminal record following you around, the odds are just against you in terms of finding good, high-paying sustainable employment. That’s one that we are really, really focused on. We’re having some great success there.
Zach: Right because right if our goal as a community and also as the Commonwealth is to get people back to work then those people who don’t have the chance to do it what are they supposed to do then at that point.
Zach: What you’re going to see is you’re going to see reoffending a lot of the time.
Charles: Yes, yes. I think you’ll see reoffending and I think on top of that I think you’ll drive people back into their addiction because if you don’t have hope, if you don’t have a way to support yourself in some way it’s very easy to fall back into that and we are in the middle of making sure that that happens to as few people as possible.
Zach: What are the House or Senate bills right now at the State Capitol that if they were passed would have the impact on treatment services in Kentucky?
Charles: Yes. I’ll highlight a few that we are working on directly. There’s always legislation out there that is tweaking things related to public health, related to addiction. I’ll kind of focus in on stuff that we’re working on directly. A bill that we have spearheaded and helped draft is legislation that we’re calling the Recovery through Employment Act. It is modeled after some legislation that was passed in Indiana a couple of years back.
The core concept is for state government to work with employers to develop drug treatment policies. If you have an individual for example that maybe failed a drug test for example or has a known addiction issue most employers tend to just let those folks go. One of the reasons they let them go is because they form a liability. If you’re an employer, you keep an individual on your payroll knowing that they have some sort of addiction issue and they end up somehow causing harm to another individual — a customer or another worker you’re really exposed to a lot of legal liability.
What Indiana did was they created these employer-facilitated drug treatment policies where if you have an individual in that situation the employer can assist them in getting into some sort of a treatment program. If the employer and the employee follow through with all of these things the employer can have some level of shielding from those legal liabilities which we think will incentivize more employers to keep those folks on payroll and to hire them.
We think that could be a really powerful thing if we can get that all to work. That legislation or that concept has had a lot of success in Indiana. There are a few companies there that have really capitalized on that, built it into their business model even to where they’re very focused on getting folks second chances, get them into treatment and then retaining them as employees.
This legislation is moving. Really have a few days left in the legislative session this year, but we think that there is a great chance of Kentucky passing that. It could be a really, really powerful thing.
I will highlight some legislation that’s near and dear to my heart that we’ve been working on for the past year. We are into the way from getting this change to expungement policy. I mentioned when you and I talked a little bit about how folks if they have a history of addiction and they have a criminal record, just the difficulties that they will face in finding employment, finding an employer is incredibly difficult.
GLI has pushed very hard for forward-thinking expungement policies in the state. We passed a really big bill last year called Senate Bill 57 that expanded Class D felony eligibility. One of the bills we worked on this year was create a new process to where if you are charged with a crime or some sort of offense and that charge is dismissed or if it’s acquitted the judge will automatically expunge it from your record so an individual didn’t have to do anything.
It will just automatically fall off which is another one of those things we think that can just help clear up people’s records to help them get into employment. We think that’s extremely important.
I’ll highlight one more bill.
Zach: Back to that just real quick, Charles so that the piece around charges if they are acquitted at least, I think there’s sort of a misnomer that people think that if it’s acquitted then it’s expunged and that’s not the case at all.
Charles: That’s right. That’s right. It’s a big problem where I think if you talk to your average Kentuckian and you ask them that question, “Hey, have you ever been charged with a crime or acquitted,” most of them will think, “Maybe yes, but sure I got acquitted so it’s not a big deal anymore.”
Actually it is a big deal. That’s showing up not only on job background checks but that might be prohibiting you from getting a professional license. It could be prohibiting your from finding housing. It’s a whole host of other things and again, I think it’s important to emphasize is that if you take that and add it on top of the history of addiction it’s a powerful obstacle for a lot of individuals. It’s one of those things that I think that can just kind of make the difference for a lot of individuals.
That’s what we’re trying to do with a lot of this stuff is just give them a fighting chance and remove some of these barriers. That bill has a great chance. I would just give a quick plug. This is House Bill 327. It’s sponsored by Representative Kevin Bratcher. It’s sitting on the governor’s desk. It’s been there since the 19th and I’m waiting for him to sign it. I’ve got my fingers crossed if you’re listening out there.
I’m pretty confident that we’ll get a signature on it. Governor Beshear has been vocally been very supportive on criminal justice reforms so I think we’re in a good spot there, but this is how it goes. Working on policy is a bill can kind of become one of your babies and you want everyone to like your baby. You don’t want anybody to veto on it.
Zach: It’s like saying that you’re an ugly baby or something. You don’t want that, right?
Charles: We don’t want that. We’re really hoping to get the governor’s signature on that. Even if maybe Governor Beshear is listening, 327 it’s a great bill.
Zach: Andy, if you’re out there please sign it. Thank you.
Charles: He’s got a ton of time to hang out, listen to the podcast.
Zach: He’s probably listening to this right now. Yes, yes, yes.
Charles: I will highlight one other piece of legislation. This is unfortunately not going to pass, but it’s something we’re going to keep fighting for. We worked with Representative Nancy Tate to craft a bill that would create a fairly modest tax credit program to encourage employers to hire individuals to our exiting treatment programs and provide them with training of some sort. That could be vocational training. It could be apprenticeships. It could be some sort of technical degree.
The concept is the employer will hire that individual, put them through these programs, and this tax credit program would offset some of their training expenses. It’s a very simple concept. We don’t quite have anything like that in Kentucky. A few other states have started experimenting with that.
We think it’s again one of those things that it would be great if everybody is doing this already anyways, but the fact of the matter is it helps if you incentivize companies to take these chances and also to bear some of these costs when it comes to training. We’re hoping that’s a way to do that, but that’s a legislation we’re going to revisit next year but we’re happy to get that conversation going.
Zach: Got it. I want to touch base just briefly before the end of the podcast. How is the current pandemic affecting your efforts right now?
Charles: It’s an odd situation because in Kentucky we’re still in the legislative session and we still have some of these issues and these bills that we’re working on and they’re still alive and we’re still trying to push them through because they’re very, very close.
At the same time just this crisis is of such incredible proportions that it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around it. I’m finding myself spending most of my time now trying to help a lot of businesses that we represent just answer everyday questions that they’re having about constant changes in government policy.
Generally, government policy changes at the pace of a very slow snail. It is moving like lightning right now. New, major complete rethinking of concepts are occurring every day. We have an unemployment system for decades now that was focused specifically on transitioning people from unemployment to work. It doesn’t do that right now; instead, we’ve had to completely rethink it to where it gets people out of employment and keeps them there. We have to keep them there because they can’t go to work because it’s unsafe.
That concept is, as somebody who’s been doing public policy analysis for over a decade now is extremely difficult to wrap my head around and even more difficult when you begin the technicalities of it and employers are trying to grapple with how does this work, how do I help my employees that I’m laying off access to employment. We’re getting questions: am I a life-sustaining business, am I not a life-sustaining business, to close, to be open, are we exposed to legal liability if we stay open, how do we keep our employers safe or how do we keep our employees safe.
It’s a cascade of different issues. You and I talked it about early on. In the back of my mind we have to not lose focus of the fact that there are a lot of already vulnerable individuals out there. Some of the folks that you and I were talking about, whether they have these criminal backgrounds or whether they have these histories of addiction this is hitting them extremely hard.
Zach: Really hard, right.
Charles: I’m fortunate. I still have a job right now and my wife still has a job, but I have a massive amount of anxiety every morning for the past week-and-a-half when I’ve woken up. I don’t struggle with addiction. That’s not weighing on me, but I can only imagine what that’s like for an individual that does have that. My heart really goes out to these people. We can’t forget about them.
We do have to make sure that those folks are being taken care of and as we exit this crisis that we continue this momentum that we’ve had the past few years and we keep pushing to make sure that we can address this addiction epidemic that is not going away. It’s not taking a vacation while the coronavirus wrecks this country. It’s still there.
Charles: It just compounded.
Zach: I think, too back to what we’re talking about earlier about those people that have filed for unemployment. You mentioned 3.3 million last week and that’s probably closer north of four just because of people who weren’t able to complete the process of that unemployment filing.
I think that during this time especially for those people that have underlying issues, mental illness just simply reaching out if it’s a phone call, if it’s something that could happen like that to let them know that they are not alone in this is a certainly positive thing to do and any effort really would help.
Zach: Charles, listen man I really appreciate your time today. It’s been great having you on the show.
Charles: Happy to be here. Happy to do it.
Zach: If you know someone struggling with an addiction and are searching for answers, visit us at landmarkrecovery.com to learn more about substance abuse programs that are both saving lives and empowering families.
Until next week, I’m Zach Crouch with Landmark Recovery Radio.
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