Many people who have used behavioral health services can attest to the profound benefits of connecting with someone with shared experience. Finding others with common lived experience – often referred to as peers – and learning about their challenges and resilience are particularly valuable for those in substance use disorder (SUD) recovery, as such connections offer hope validation, and frequently provide helpful wellness strategies. Recognizing the immense benefit of peers, Community Care Behavioral Health Organization (Community Care), a part of UPMC Insurance Services Division, has worked with its county and service providers in Pennsylvania to optimize the use of peers both across the provider network and within the organization. Such peer inclusion has resulted in positive outcomes and enhanced recovery for our members.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines peers as “people who have been successful in the recovery process who help others experiencing similar situations. Through shared understanding, respect, and mutual empowerment… people become and stay engaged in the recovery process and reduce the likelihood of relapse. Peer support services can effectively extend the reach of treatment beyond the clinical setting into the everyday environment of those seeking a successful, sustained recovery process.”1
Over the past few decades, health systems have increasingly recognized the immense benefit of incorporating peers into the behavioral health space and have embedded peers in the recovery treatment continuum. The many benefits of peer inclusion include improved quality outcomes around engagement and retention in treatment; increased follow up rates; decreased readmission rates; higher member satisfaction levels; and reduction of unplanned care costs.
Peer Support is Uniquely Valuable
The capacity of peers to engage, aid, and connect with members in recovery has been recognized across provider organizations as being highly beneficial and impactful. Community Care conducted interviews with supervisors at mental health programs across Pennsylvania that include peers in service delivery. These interviews revealed that some of the greatest values of peer support within the mental health treatment space were the peers’ ability to build rapport with individuals, offer support in ways that other staff could not, and keep individuals engaged in services within their communities.
Peer Support Helps Realize Key Quality Outcomes
Among adult Community Care members who received peer services after admission to an inpatient psychiatric or SUD residential service, there was an 18 percent reduction in psychiatric readmissions and a 66 percent reduction in SUD readmissions. Larger reductions in SUD readmission were noted among adults receiving peer support substance use services versus a matched comparison group receiving outpatient service alone.
Peer Support Helps Connect People to Needed Services
Community Care’s Warm Hand Off intervention was designed to link individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis (often a near-fatal drug overdose) to effective treatments, with the aim of increasing participation in ongoing SUD treatment. Each year, thousands of individuals meet with a peer or case manager after a hospitalization or emergency care event. To date, 76 percent of those individuals were connected to SUD services within seven days, illustrating the vital role peers can play in care linkage.
Peer Run Programs Are Successful
Recovery Support Centers (RSC) are peer-led, drop-in centers designed for individuals with behavioral health and other rehabilitation needs. These centers focus on supporting individuals with complex needs. Peers at RSCs help individuals regain hope and maintain recovery. Surveyed individuals who received RSC services report feeling hopeful about their future. In addition, outcomes for individuals receiving RSC service show high self-reported levels of recovery, service satisfaction, and engagement in their care.
Peers Are an Essential Component of Community Connection
Community Care employs Certified Peer Specialists (CPS) and Certified Recovery Specialists (CRS) in various capacities. CPS support members and facilitate Community Care’s Statewide Member Advisory Boards. They also provide training and support to CPS and CRS providers and staff across contracts. Community Care also employs CPS/CRS in the role of community health workers (CHWs) who are tasked with helping members access support and services within their communities. As part of their duties, CHWs meet with members at psychiatric and residential SUD facilities to assess reasons for admission, address social determinants impacting community tenure, and determine the members’ motivation for ongoing treatment. Members who engaged with a CHW in 2022 as part of Community Care’s community-based care management program experienced an 88 percent reduction in psychiatric hospital utilization and 79 percent reduction in residential withdrawal management compared to before their engagement in the intervention.
Peers are an integral part of recovery. By virtue of their lived experience, they are uniquely positioned to assist others in their recovery journeys. Their value is manifested in areas ranging from engagement in treatment to quality metrics outcomes. Community Care celebrates the work performed by peers and looks forward to exploring new possibilities for peer expansion and collaboration.
Geoffrey Neimark, MD, is Chief Medical Officer at Community Care Behavioral Health Organization.
Community Care Behavioral Health Organization (Community Care) is a nonprofit behavioral health managed care organization (BH-MCO) based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We are a subsidiary of UPMC and part of the UPMC Insurance Services Division. Community Care was created to support Pennsylvania’s mandatory managed care program for Medicaid recipients, called HealthChoices. Since 1999, we have delivered behavioral health services to Medicaid recipients throughout Pennsylvania. Today, we serve over 1 million HealthChoices members in more than half of Pennsylvania’s counties. More information can be found at ccbh.com.