(The Center Square) – Opioid settlement funds will create new social worker and mental health positions with the Spokane Fire Department under an adopted proposal to expand its CARES program.

The City of Spokane is involved in two settlements involving opioid distributors and manufacturers that are expected to pay out over $13 million over 17 years. Mayor Lisa Brown’s proposal will direct around half of the $2.2 million currently available.

“This funding is going to save lives,” said Paul Dillon, City Councilmember and chair of the Public Safety and Community Health committee, in a statement on Wednesday. “Support for these critical programs and services helps us reach the people most vulnerable to opioid abuse disorder.”

The CARES program was established in 2008 to reduce strain on the emergency healthcare system by addressing needs based on social determinants of health. It was the first of its kind across Washington, and several other cities adopted programs based on Spokane’s.

Anne Raven, integrated medical services manager for SFD and its CARES manager, said the program is run thin and can only afford to continue operating with this approved funding.

Call volumes have increased exponentially since 2020, while funding has only been able to maintain a single social worker who works alongside a revolving door of college students, she said. In the past year alone, referrals have gone up one-third.

“For the last several months, we’ve been saying it’s not sustainable anymore,” Raven said. “With the amount of calls that we have, including the fentanyl crisis cases, it just wasn’t sustainable with our current staffing at all.”

CARES relies on referrals from police and firefighters when responding to 911 calls from high utilizers or people calling emergency services for social work. After a referral is made, a social worker, and at times students, will respond to assess and help facilitate those needs, she said.

The $500,000 directed to CARES will allow the program to hire another social worker and two mental health coordinators while covering a laundry list of other operational costs, Raven said.

“We’re in a time when these social and medical issues are huge, and the need is enormous,” Raven said. “It’s not an issue that’s going to go away overnight.”

The other half of Brown’s allocated funding will go toward creating a High Utilizer and Complex Care Initiative that relies on contractual services with a community-based provider.

According to a press release from the city, the initiative would help coordinate care, provide youth wrap-around services and initiate case management services for people bouncing between jail, emergency departments and local shelters.

“This funding allocation is a step forward in our commitment to community safety supporting people struggling with opioid use disorder,” Brown said in a statement on Wednesday. We are expanding a proven model and increasing our case management capacity, which is designed to ultimately decrease taxpayer costs associated with jail, emergency room, and shelter use.”