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Delivering Care Designed Specifically for First Responders and Front-Line Health Workers



First responders and health care workers confronting the COVID-19 pandemic face risks of stress, trauma and burnout. A Paramus-based group specializes in caring for these heroic caregivers.

By Thomas Vincz, Public Relations Manager

Heroes can hurt too.

While it’s easy to be awestruck by the courage and dedication of doctors, nurses and EMTs going all-out to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also easy to forget that first responders are vulnerable to the same emotional stresses, anxieties and trauma that everyone else experiences.

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, first responders are at risk of “burnout and secondary traumatic stress during prolonged exposure to emergencies,” on top of the inherent risks of being exposed to the coronavirus simply by doing their jobs.

“There’s not a mask, face shield, or bullet-proof vest that can protect these workers from the emotional overload that can come with being a first responder in the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Eric Frieman, Chief Executive Officer of Strive Health and VFR (Veteran & First Responder) Healthcare, a veteran-owned/operated organization in Paramus providing outpatient addiction and mental health treatment for veterans, first responders and their families.

“First responders are experiencing extreme emotions of guilt, anxiety and grief from this pandemic that they’ve never had to process before,” Frieman added.

Filling an Unmet Need in Mental Health

Witnessing how these emotions can manifest into depression, sleep loss, mental health problems and substance abuse led Frieman to co-found Strive Health. A close friend of his family, Eric Golnick, experienced these challenges as a U.S. Naval officer deployed to Japan when earthquakes devastated that country in 2011, followed by a tsunami and a meltdown of nuclear plants.

“Eric suffered from post-traumatic stress and substance use, which was perpetuated by his inability to find treatment providers who had cultural competency,” Frieman said.

Eric finally got the help he needed. But having seen what he went through, both men recognized a calling – to address a huge unmet need for affordable and effective substance use and mental health treatment, especially among the veteran and first responder populations. In 2016, the two close friends formed VFR Healthcare, and its sister company, Strive Health.

This July, Strive Health and VFR Healthcare joined the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ) network. While originally born out of the need to help military veterans, law enforcement and corrections officers, the organization has expanded its services to doctors, nurses and other medical personnel on the front lines, opening up additional facilities in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, while also creating a virtual platform to treat patients via telehealth.

The Mental Health Pandemic within COVID-19

Health workers can be compared to soldiers fighting an invisible enemy. And in this war, the soldiers can’t take comfort knowing their families are safe at home during their deployment.

“A nurse who says goodbye to her family in the morning and leaves for work has to fear all day she could bring COVID-19 back home. So that’s a whole different type of stress level that healthcare workers in this country have never faced,” Frieman said.

With this extra stress comes the need for extra support. “Among the many lessons from this pandemic is that we must do more to make sure the first responders we depend upon to protect and care for us have a support system that they and their families can turn to for help,said Suzanne Kunis, Vice-President of Behavioral Health at Horizon BCBSNJ. “Strive Health and its Veteran and first responder programming are an integral part of Horizon’s strategy to offer whole-person, integrated care support for our 3.5 million members. Our goal is to create a best-in-class system – both virtually and in brick and mortar – with a full range of services to help individuals receive the treatment, support and behavioral health services they need.”

In addition to Strive Health, Horizon BCBSNJ recently added three other providers offering mental health and substance use outpatient treatment – both with a virtual and physical presence in New Jersey –  Eleanor Health, Kaden Health and WorkIt Health.

Care Catered to First-Responders

Kunis said Strive Health’s entrance into Horizon BCBSNJ’s provider network is more important now than ever, as many first responders in New Jersey continue to cope with the impact of COVID-19.

Strive Health provides a whole spectrum of outpatient treatment programs and services delivered in-person or via teletherapy for substance use and co-occurring mental health issues, including intensive outpatient services, traditional outpatient services such as individual therapy, early intervention services and family counseling.

Providing counseling during a crisis is critically important so that first responders can endure the stress and continue to play a pivotal role in addressing the pandemic head-on.

“Treatment is specialized to address the unique culture, preferences, and values of first responders and healthcare workers and is trauma-informed, which recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into clinical programming and treatment planning,” Frieman said.

If you or someone you know would benefit from these services, visit strivecares.com, vfrhealthcare.com, or contact Horizon BCBSNJ member services at 1-800-355-BLUE (2583).