Oregon Health Authority Mulls Background Check Rule

Addictions and mental health stakeholders say a criminal background can actually be an asset in some positions
The Lund Report

August 6, 2013 – A proposed rule that would require community health workers to undergo background checks as a condition of licensure is the subject of backlash from the addictions and mental health community – and even the workgroup tasked with creating regulations and licensure.

Healthcare organizations have used community health workers -- initially called Non-Traditional Health Workers and now called Traditional Health Workers -- for decades. These community health workers are not considered healthcare professionals, but often work with marginalized populations, teaching people how to take care of themselves and access services in their community. Often, they’re part of the population actually being targeted.

In addictions and mental health, community health workers are known as peer support specialists, and help support people recovering from mental health and substance abuse problems. By definition, a peer support specialist has a history of substance abuse or a mental health issue – which enables them to relate to the person they’re helping..

More often than not, people enter addiction recovery programs with a criminal history. That’s actually a plus when it helping addicts put their lives back together, according to stakeholders who testified at a public hearing held by the Oregon Health Authority last month..

“My concern is that we are moving in a direction that is so going to sanitize our workforce, and it will become ineffective,” said Tanya Pritt, director of YES House in Corvallis. “We can't run on these folks with high degrees and no experience. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't add up.”

While some rehabilitation programs perform a criminal background check as a condition of employment for peer support specialists, most work with private companies that determine whether an applicant's background is problematic, based on the specifics of the job.

Eric Martin, director of the Addiction Counselor and Certification Board of Oregon, said the proposed rule is problematic because the background checks would be handled by the Department of Human Services, which has very rigid criteria. He also argued that the rule disproportionately targets people of color

Many who testified at the July hearing had actually undergone a DHS background check, and been rejected or fired, often for crimes such as shoplifting that didn't relate to their job description.

“I don't think the intent of the Oregon Health Authority or DHS or anybody else is to keep certain people  out of these positions,” Rebecca Birnbaum, human resources director of Central City Concern, told The Lund Report. “The disconnect is that they’re not realizing that imposing their background requirements could potentially prohibit employers like ourselves from hiring people who really know how to deal with the work, and we were able to exempt them from this background check.”

Describing herself as a certified peer recovery mentor, Dixie Yagle said she was representing the still-suffering addicts out there. “I can't even remember how many times I've been arrested, so I don't even know how that would work, if I miss something I wouldn't want someone to persecute me.”

Yagle was among dozens of people at the two-hour hearing who identified themselves as recovering addicts, many of whom said they wouldn't have made it through the early stages of the recovery process if they hadn't had the opportunity to talk to people who’d been in their shoes.

“I have been denied for apartments because of my background check. I've worked really hard to become a peer mentor and I would hate for that rug to get pulled out from under me,” Yagle said.


Christen McCurdy can be reached at christen@thelundreport.org

Amanda Waldroupe contributed to this report.

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