Essentia Health has received $1 million to increase access to treatment and recovery programming for people with opioid use disorder in rural communities in northern Minnesota.

Essentia will use the three-year grant from Health Resources and Services Administration to target two areas: northern St. Louis County as well as Becker, Clearwater and Mahnomen counties in the northwestern part of the state.

"Now that we've done that, this next step is to actually do the implementation of treatment in rural communities," said Pat Conway, a project leader and researcher for the Essentia Institute of Rural Health, later adding: "The expectation is that these two communities will figure out how to make this work."

Prior to receiving the grant, Essentia received a one-year planning grant from HRSA to determine its community partners and areas to target resources with, Conway said. The decision to focus on northern St. Louis County, specifically Ely and Virginia, stemmed from the work of Dr. Joe Bianco, who works between the Virginia and Ely clinics and offers medication assisted treatment.

"It's all his idea," Conway said. "He's the person who kind of has the dream about this."

Essentia is using its $1 million HRSA grant to continue expanding the model that Ely has already started, Conway said. With help from state grants, the Ely clinic started a program called Ely Behavioral Health Network, which partners the clinic with other agencies in the community to serve the community's behavioral and mental health needs.

The grant will allow Essentia to hire a community health worker in its Virginia clinic to help people with housing, transportation and other issues that influence a person's health. It's a position that already exists in the Ely clinic and Conway said it's proven to make a difference.

"It's thinking about the individual in the community as a whole person and saying what would make this person's health better," Conway said.

More physicians and nurses within Essentia are also receiving training to offer medication assisted treatment to people with substance use disorders. Currently only a select few can offer the treatment between the two clinics.

The idea is that if more primary care providers are better equipped to respond to people with substance use disorders, those people are more likely to receive the resources they need. The goal is that physicians and nurses can then also serve as the link between patients and other more specialized care.

"So many people who need treatment of all kinds, they only go to their primary care physician and they won't end up at Range Mental Health Center (in Virginia) or some place else," Conway said. "We'll just treat a lot more people better if we do it through primary care."

The hospital is partnering with six organizations, four of which are in St. Louis County: Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Duluth, Well Being Development in Ely, Range Mental Health Center as well as St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, both in Virginia.

Range Mental Health Care Center will receive a portion of the grant money to expand its services to include treatment for substance use disorders, Conway said.

The Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Duluth, which has experience treating people with substance use disorders, will provide consultations to the clinics in Ely and Virginia. The center will also be available for patients who would benefit from more intensive care.