Ernie Fletcher speaking at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. (Source: the Fletcher Group)

For more than a year, Jay Phillips, executive director of Seed Sower, Inc., has worked to open a drug recovery program in rural Meadow Bridge, West Virginia.

This year, the facility will open up with 11 beds for adult women in an area of the state where recovery facilities for women are rare. In the spring, Phillips said in a video statement, the facility will expand to 14 beds, with a goal of moving to as many as 25 beds, and adding more transitional-style housing where those just out of recovery can stay for up to five years.

Building the program, he said, would not have been as successful if it hadn’t been for the Fletcher Group, a non-profit organization created by former Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher. The organization provides technical and organizational support to rising drug recovery facilities, as well as providing support to rural communities facing addiction crises.

“I cannot understate how profoundly grateful we are as an organization to have been able to work with the Fletcher Group over the last year,” Phillips said.

The Fletcher Group arose out of Fletcher’s involvement with Don and Mira Ball, owners of Ball Homes.

In 1993, Fletcher said in an interview, the Balls approached him about building a homeless shelter for women, the Hope Center, that addressed not just homelessness, but its underlying issues, like drug addiction. Then a member of Congress, Fletcher said he was intrigued by the Hope Center’s focus and effectiveness.

“He described them as the people nobody cares about,” Fletcher said. “But their goal was not just to house and feed them, but to transform their lives.”

A former physician, Fletcher said he saw how the center tackled not just drug addiction, but all of the issues surrounding effective recovery.

Now, the Fletcher Group, a non-profit developed by Fletcher and the Balls, helps other organizations across the country find the resources and tools they need to be successful in helping people in their own communities tackle drug addiction. The group also works to create a recovery eco-system within those communities, to ensure recovering addicts are successful.

The group stems from an idea Don Ball had in the early 2000s.

While Fletcher was serving as governor of Kentucky, Ball approached him with an idea about a new way to fund recovery facilities.

Ball’s idea used a “blended funding” model that allows organizations to build recovery centers debt-free, using money from different states, local and federal sources.

The original program, Recovery Kentucky, used U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money to fund the centers. It used Section 8 vouchers that stayed with the facility instead of following its residents. By diverting inmates from criminal justice centers to get appropriate treatment instead of just being incarcerated, the program was able to receive per diems from correction facilities to house individuals. Using the individual’s SNAP benefits and Medicare or Medicaid benefits, the program was able to further fund treatment.

“The funding was there to provide really a first-class facility with a nine to 24-month treatment program at no cost to the participant unless they had some form of income,” Fletcher said.

It was a model they used to create 17 facilities across the state, mostly in rural areas.

“Rural communities are disproportionately affected by substance abuse disorder,” Fletcher said. “A lot of rural areas have a lack of economic opportunities, which can lead to a higher incidence of substance use disorder.”

The group then partnered with the University of Kentucky’s Center for Drug and Alcohol Research to track the program’s effectiveness.

What they found was that 84% of the participants in the Recovery Kentucky facilities that stayed through one year of treatment did not reuse drugs during the period of the study. Additionally, the program had only a 10% recidivism rate ending in another criminal arrest.

In 2017, the Balls approached Fletcher about taking the recovery model nationwide. With a commitment from Fletcher and a donation by Mira Ball, the Fletcher Group was created.

Since then, the group has received wide-spread recognition. In 2019, the Appalachian Regional Commission awarded the Fletcher Group $1.68 million in Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) grant funding. That same year, the Kentucky Opioid Response Effort gave the non-profit funding to help healthcare professionals identify, assess and treat opioid use disorder. Also that same year, the group was awarded a $10 million HRSA Center of Rural Excellence grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to take the group’s unique model nationwide.

Instead of funding recovery houses, though, Dave Johnson, the Fletcher Group CEO said in an interview, the group helps non-profit organizations in communities in need find resources and funding to create their own facilities.

“It’s important that you have people that are living and working in those rural communities to engage with those in their communities because otherwise, they don’t really trust you,” Johnson said.

Organizations interested in creating recovery homes in their communities, like Phillip’s Seed Sowers, he said, contact the Fletch Group for guidance. And sometimes, the group reaches out to communities.

“We were doing a very aggressive kind of outreach that said, ‘We know that you have overdose issues in your community. What are you doing about it?” he said. “Are you interested in doing something? Have you thought about recovery housing?… And we bring to them the team with subject matter expertise, resources and finances, and economic development.”

The goal is to provide resources so that organizations can treat the individuals as a whole, by providing education, training, and support.

“We started Recovery Kentucky to really change lives. And we quickly realized that medically assisted treatment (treating drug addiction with medications) is not enough,” Fletcher said. “As a physician, I know that you have to address the social determinants of health in order to be successful.”

Fletcher said he hopes to not only expand the model to all 50 states but also to start a certification program that will assess recovery centers, as a way to assure those entering recovery and their families that the centers are good ones.