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State to test telehealth drug, alcohol treatment

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news Mitchell, 57301
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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By Kevin Burbach

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PIERRE (AP) — In an effort to get more treatment services to rural South Dakota, the Department of Social Services is exploring using telemedicine to help drug and alcohol abusers in remote parts of the state stay sober and out of prison, state officials said this week.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance has awarded a $100,000 grant to the department to figure out how to implement new so-called telehealth services with treatment providers in the state as part of its rural pilot program, said Jim Seward, general counsel for the state.

Judges have often told state officials that treatment centers are too far from some rural parts of the state, leaving drug and alcohol abusers without help, Seward said. And if treatment isn't an option, judges said they're often forced to send offenders to prison instead of keeping on them on probation.

Amy Iversen-Pollreisz, deputy secretary of the Department of Social Services, said the state has already used telehealth services in areas like psychiatry.

"So we thought, 'Boy, maybe we need to explore this application for substance abuse treatment as a viable model to get services to people in those very rural areas where it's just not practical to have a provider there, not cost-effective,'" she said.

The approach will likely be similar to how health care and psychiatry professionals use telemedicine, Iversen-Pollreisz said, in which the individual uses a computer to receive outpatient services they'd normally receive in person.

In early July, the department awarded contracts to two providers that will serve rural areas of three circuit court districts across the state.

Lutheran Social Services will serve rural parts of the 1st judicial circuit, which stretches from Buffalo to Union County, and the 5th, which covers the northwest counties of the state. Volunteers of America will provide services to rural areas in the 6th district, which makes up several of the state's central and south-central counties.

The initiative is part of South Dakota's Public Safety Improvement Act of 2013, which brought about sweeping reforms by changing the state's focus on nonviolent drug offenders and authorizing the Supreme Court to set up drug courts throughout South Dakota. Drug and drunken driving courts allow people with nonviolent drug offenses to opt for treatment and probation rather than prison.

A few other states have explored using telehealth services to provide substance abuse treatment, but Iversen-Pollreisz said it's not yet very common.

The funding awarded this week will allow the department to begin exploring how the two providers can implement their telehealth services, Iversen-Pollreisz said.

The department hopes to have services in place by this fall.

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