2023 People's Choice Award

Sarah O’Donnell, Allison Hutchings, Megan Meacham and the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program Team   

Created a major initiative that provides grants for prevention, treatment and recovery services to help millions of people suffering from opioid use in rural communities across the country.

This team was selected as the 2023 People’s Choice Award winner. Learn more about the award here and watch a conversation with them about winning the People’s Choice award here.

Faced with high rates of poverty, unemployment and limited access to health care, many rural communities throughout the country are struggling with a staggering opioid use epidemic.  

To help deal with this public health crisis, Megan Meacham, Allison Hutchings and Sarah O’Donnell set up and now manage the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program, or RCORP. The program provides funding for a wide array of opioid use prevention, treatment and recovery services—from traditional interventions to promising practices. 

“Meacham, Hutchings and O’Donnell’s exceptional vision and leadership skills have significantly contributed to alleviating one of the greatest public health crises of this generation,” said Tom Morris, associate administrator for Rural Health Policy at the Health Resources and Services Administration. “Their visionary work, innovations and accomplishments have improved the lives of millions of people in many of the nation’s most vulnerable communities.” 

The program, initiated five years ago, has invested over $500 million and served more than 2 million people a year in more than 1,800 rural counties across 47 states and two territories. Some 634,000 service providers, paraprofessional staff and community members have been trained on issues related to opioid prescribing and the use of naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, as well as on harm reduction approaches and mental health first aid. 

Meeting the needs of local communities 

While the program is having a real impact, the scope of the opioid problem is overwhelming and presents a daunting challenge that requires creativity and persistence. Meacham, Hutchings and O’Donnell have made inroads by funding customized approaches and programs tailored to each community and its needs, recognizing that the way the opioid crisis is playing out in Appalachia is different than in Arizona or New England.  

The focus of the initiative is on prevention, treatment and recovery, and includes partnerships with a range of local community members and groups, such as first responders, churches, criminal justice representatives, schools and individuals who have had personal experience with substance use disorders. In all, more than 3,000 organizations partner with RCORP grantees. 

In some communities, these grantees leverage resources to support transportation, child care and housing needs. In other communities, they supply schools with the lifesaving drug naloxone.  

Addressing the stigma of opioid addiction 

The three team leaders also have focused on addressing the stigma of substance use.  

“This approach has helped those affected feel comfortable seeking treatment and encouraged health care providers and other community members to provide the services that have been proven to help those struggling with substance use,” said Nisha Patel, a senior HRSA advisor. 

Throughout the entire RCORP initiative, sustainability has been at the core of decisions. According to Morris, the team works to ensure that the programs and services it supports remain in place and increase communities’ local capacity to continue providing treatment and prevention.  

“They have been able to go from a fuzzy concept to a programmatic reality,” he said. “They have brought a level of creativity and tenacity and hard work that I think is unique.”  

Meacham said she and her colleagues have a strong commitment to the program, and “we are here to help and passionate to serve. Even when we hit a roadblock, we find a way around it.”  

O’Donnell said the team has worked closely with communities and other partners to ensure they get what they need. “When we have finally given the money to communities and we hear the stories of people being helped because of the programs we put in place, it’s just amazing,” she said.