Toni Simonson

A recently awarded $200,000 grant will help a consortium gain a better understanding of and create plans to help address opioid use disorders in northern Wisconsin.

The federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant, which spans 18 months with a start date of Sept. 1 of this year, was awarded to L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center, a service of HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.

In addition to another $20,000 grant from the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis Foundation, the funds will be used to lead and operate the Northwest Wisconsin Heroin Opioid Prevent Education Consortium in Chippewa, Barron, Rusk and Washburn counties.

The consortium is focused on those four counties because they are largely rural and contiguous, said Toni Simonson, executive director of behavioral health at L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Prevea Health. The goal was also to avoid overlapping counties with other groups applying for the same grant, with the aim of collaborating instead of competing with those groups.

In addition to the treatment center, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Prevea Health, the NW WI HOPE consortium also consists of representatives from Barron County Sheriff’s Department, Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, Rusk County Department of Health and Human Services and Cooperative Education Service Agency 10.

The consortium, which had its first meeting in November, has some basic county information that they can start with, but throughout the duration of the grant, they want to understand the situation much better so that they can come up with a cohesive plan to address the opioid problem more effectively, Simonson said.

“We need much more deeper, meaningful information,” Simonson said.

The current grant funding is to be used for planning purposes, with the plan itself being the “main deliverable,” Simonson said. After the completion of the planning grant, though, the goal is to use their findings to write for a 3-year $1 million implementation grant to put the plan into action.

Even if the implementation grant, also offered by HRSA, is no longer available to be applied for by the time the first grant is finished or they don’t get that financial backing for any other reason, the consortium will still work to do whatever they can with the information they garner in this initial effort, Simonson said.

For now, though, the group will use its planning grant to dedicate itself to three main goals: assessing which prevention and treatment resources are currently available in the four counties the consortium is covering; identifying which additional resources are needed; and developing a comprehensive strategic and workforce plan for long-term prevention and treatment resources in the counties.

Some may wonder why the consortium is focusing on opioids instead of methamphetamine, which people in the area may see as a larger problem.

The answer to that line of thinking has multiple parts, according to Simonson.

First and perhaps most simply, the funding was available to study opioids.

Second, trends across the state and nation have shown that a methamphetamine problem in an area is a precursor to an opioid problem following, Simonson said.

In terms of where the situation stands with the opioid crisis, “things are getting worse,” Simonson said.

Also, there’s “robust” evidence on treatment options for opioid use disorders, something that’s more lacking for methamphetamine-related disorders, she said.

While the grant was awarded to focus on opioid use, the resources that the grant will open up can also be used to help address other substance use disorders as well, Simonson said.

The HRSA grant comes as part of multi-year federal initiative called the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program. The fiscal year 2020 planning grants totaled $10,000,000 given to 50 grantees nationwide. St. Joseph’s Hospital is the only Wisconsin entity on HRSA’s list of grant recipients as of September.

For fiscal year 2019, two Wisconsin entities are listed as having received grants on the HRSA website: Family Health Center of Marshfield, Inc., and St. Vincent Hospital of The Hospital Sisters of The Third Order of St. Francis. None of the listed fiscal year 2018 grantees were from Wisconsin.

Rural areas can face some specific challenges when it comes to addressing crises related to substance use disorders, including those related to opioids.

Challenges with employment can lead to problems with transportation to treatment, Simonson said. Having to travel farther to access treatment, as happens frequently in many aspects of rural health care, presents a challenge in and of itself.

There aren’t enough providers for treatment, Simonson said, with the L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center being the only treatment provider for substance abuse in the counties that consortium is focusing on.

But the stigma when it come to opioid use disorders is similar in both rural and urban areas, Simonson said, in that there’s a lack of understanding on the topic that manifests in many people seeing opioid misuse as a choice and not a disease.

That kind of assumption is wrong, Simonson said.

“People don’t choose to have an addiction.”

No one starts using opioids and hopes to become addicted, she said. Many who use opioids don’t understand them and don’t realize just how easy it is to become addicted to them.

Still, the stigma surrounding opioid use disorders can make providers less inclined to offer services that could help those who need them, Simonson said.

The NW WI HOPE consortium aims to lessen that stigma with their work, Simonson said. With this grant, they hope to better understand the communities in their area of focus, their needs and which resources are available to help them achieve that goal.

“This is the first step,” Simonson said.

The consortium is open to have many more organizations being involved in its work, Simonson said. The more organizations that join, the greater the impact will be, she said.

Those interested in joining as a member can contact Katie Daul at 920-848-6329 or