When people call the Illinois opioid help hotline, their phone calls are being answered by people in Boston, according to the state’s Department of Human Services.
Last year, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced the creation of an opioid help hotline that provides people affected by opioid addiction a place to call for confidential assistance and to be connected to treatment and recovery-support services. The hotline is part of the state’s effort to combat the opioid epidemic, and something Rauner and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti promoted during a bill-signing event in East St. Louis in December.
The $1.2 million program is being paid for through a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. When the state selected a provider, the Department of Human Services opted to go with Boston-based Health Resources in Action, even though there were four Illinois-based providers that submitted proposals.
Chicago-based Caritas, Chicago-area nonprofit Pilsen-Little Village Community Mental Health Center, Chicago-based A Safe Haven, and the Iroquois Mental Health Center in eastern Illinois submitted proposals, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
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Agencies that submitted proposals had to list how much of the $1.2 million would be allocated to personnel, fringe benefits, hotline equipment and other expenses.
Health Resources in Action’s proposal included travel costs between Boston and Chicago for training purposes.
However, the helpline is located in Boston, said Patrick Laughlin, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services. The hotline has received more than 1,000 calls since it was started.
A particularly important aspect ... was to choose a vendor that did not have a conflict of interest when referring individuals to treatment, meaning there was no connection between the helpline contractor and a referral source. It’s imperative that the helpline remains impartial when referring individuals to treatment and this aspect may have limited the number of Illinois organizations interested in responding to the (request for proposals).
Patrick Laughlin, spokesman for Illinois Department of Human Services
According to the Health Resources in Action proposal, more than $515,000 was going to be spent with Texas-based Nebulogic Technologies to develop and maintain the hotline system. Health Resources in Action planned a $65,000 marketing and communications budget and is working with the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago to promote the opioid hotline.
Jeremy Holman, vice president of Health Resources in Action, which is serving as the project director, referred questions to the Department of Human Services.
The Department of Human Services selected Health Resources in Action after publishing a Notice of Funding Opportunity.
“This process involves scoring applications for the project based on several categories and the highest scorer is chosen,” said Laughlin, the DHS spokesman. “A particularly important aspect ... was to choose a vendor that did not have a conflict of interest when referring individuals to treatment, meaning there was no connection between the helpline contractor and a referral source. It’s imperative that the helpline remains impartial when referring individuals to treatment, and this aspect may have limited the number of Illinois organizations interested in responding to the (request for proposals).”
Rauner’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the Department of Human Services’ funding opportunity notice, it said it wanted a provider that could operate a hotline 24 hours a day, year-round, with the ability to handle 30,000 phone calls a year with staff solely dedicated to answering callers.
Health Resources in Action touted its 20 years of experience with these types of hotlines, as it implemented the Massachusetts Substance Use helpline.
“In just the past two years, the (Massachusetts) Helpline has served nearly 50,000 callers and over 300,000 website visitors,” Health Resources in Action’s proposal said.
Current executives are listed as overseeing the hotline, but Health Resources stated in the proposal that it planned to hire eight employees to help answer phone calls.
“Staffing for the hotline will include existing helpline staff, as well as new hires,” the proposal said. “New staff will be trained by and work alongside current helpline team members, leveraging HRiA’s helpline experience and maximizing our ability to develop and launch this program in a short period of time.”
The Illinois-based agencies that submitted proposals also touted their hotline experience.
Dennis Hopkins, who is the executive director of the Iroquois Mental Health Center and previously worked for the Department of Corrections as the mental health director before retiring in 2002, said he was disappointed when he learned the contract went to an out-of-state agency.
“It’s $1.2 million that goes somewhere else,” he said.
“We know the territory. We know what’s available and which areas provide which services, and we know the quality,” Hopkins added.
The Iroquois Mental Health Center provides mental health and substance abuse services to clients in Iroquois County and Vermillion, Kankakee and Will counties.
Iroquois also managed a crisis hotline for Effingham County for people seeking information or referrals for mental health or substance abuse, crisis intervention or hospitalization, according to its proposal.
We know the territory. We know what’s available and which areas provide which services, and we know the quality.
Dennis Hopkins, executive director of Iroquois Mental Health Center
Iroquois planned to hire 29 people, including 12 to work on weekends, if it was awarded the opioid hotline contract.
“We know how to do it, (and) the stuff that needs to happen in the state from a mental health stand point,” Hopkins said.
He said he would have looked to locate the hotline call center near colleges within the state.
“I would have thought someone from Illinois would have gotten it,” Hopkins said. “I was in total shock.”
Chicago-area nonprofit Pilsen, which works with Latino and African-American residents, has managed a toll-free DUI phone number for more than 10 years to provide access to the center’s addiction services. Callers are provided information in terms of court-mandated requirements for license reinstatement.
Pilsen’s case managers have experience helping individuals secure benefits and in connecting program participants with needed support services, Pilsen said in its proposal. It also has partnerships with Mount Sinai hospital and medical center, St. Anthony Hospital and the University of Illinois at Chicago hospitals.
In Pilsen’s proposal narrative, the agency would have planned for a hotline team including six substance abuse counselors, five case managers and one coordinator. It would have based the hotline at its administration building and residential site in Chicago.
Caritas, formerly known as Interventions, has been in Illinois since 1974. It has done residential and outpatient treatment programs, and has been involved in research programs with Emory University and Cook County Board of Health Services.
The executive director for Caritas has helped start up a managed call center and managed a hotline with Chicago Department of Public Health to give referrals to substance abuse treatment services.
Currently most of Caritas’ services center around a central intake program, providing assessment and referral service, and helping people find community-based substance abuse treatment programs. It also helps provide hepatitis C testing and it also has started an outpatient medication-assisted therapy program.
A Safe Haven, a Chicago-based agency, had plans to have two of its employees oversee the hotline, while paying for a program director and 15 peer crisis recovery coaches to answer hotline calls. More than $400,000 would have been allocated for the recovery coaches who would work 35 hours a week, according to the proposal.
There was also a proposal from Pittsburgh-based Morneau Sheppell, but employee counts and equipment costs related to setting up the hotline were not included in an open-records response from the state.
The hotline is available 24 hours a day by calling 1-833-2FINDHELP (34634357).
Who submitted proposals to run the state’s opioid hotline?
City of business address
Total planned expenditures
Total proposed salaries
Total proposed for fringe benefits
Proposed number of employees assigned to hotline
19 (16 to be determined)
Health Resources in Action
12 (8 to be hired)
Iroquois Mental Health Center
29 to be hired
Pilsen-Little Village Community Mental Health Center
24 (12 to be determined, 12 current)
A Safe Haven
18 (16 to be hired)