IRETA’s Begining Seems As Serendipitous as the Big Bang
St. Francis Hospital was something special. Although it’s been shuttered for over 17 years, St. Francis lives on in the memories of thousands of western Pennsylvanians whose lives were changed by the addiction services they received there. Similarly, countless health and human services providers in our region were made better by working at (or adjacent to) St. Francis, which modeled a compassionate approach to substance use disorder treatment that was unmatched in its era.
Although St. Francis was a unique force in western Pennsylvania, its origins weren’t unusual. Founded by the Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale in the middle of the 19th century, St. Francis was among a number of independently-owned hospitals guided by a mission to provide care to needy individuals, including those with psychiatric and substance use disorders. And when the hospital closed in 2002, it was also in line with a broader trend: as healthcare services consolidated in western Pennsylvania (and across the nation), independent hospitals were taken over by large health systems. Such was the case when UPMC bought St. Francis and converted it to a children’s hospital.
In comparison to St. Francis, IRETA’s beginning seems as serendipitous as the Big Bang. All of the right ingredients needed to combine in the right moment—and they did.
Dr. Michael T. Flaherty, a clinical psychologist and Vice President of Behavioral Services at St. Francis Hospital, believed profoundly in the model of addiction care that St. Francis espoused. As the hospital neared its final days, he worked with its administration to secure funding for a training and policy think tank that would perpetuate the paradigm that St. Francis had embodied for so many years. He envisioned IRETA as an independent nonprofit seeking to align science, service, and policy in the area of addiction and its treatment.
With seed funding from St. Francis Hospital and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, Dr. Flaherty recruited allies and staff members from western Pennsylvania’s extensive network of addiction experts. He forged partnerships with Pennsylvania state agencies and within two years had secured a federal grant as a training center to promote the use of evidence-based addiction treatment practices. With impressive speed, IRETA had, in today’s parlance, become a thing.
New nonprofits are vulnerable. Establishing an effective governing structure and firm financial footing is a heavy lift. IRETA’s birth and initial growth is entirely a testament to Dr. Flaherty’s vision, creativity, and remarkable stick-to-itiveness.
Twenty years later, IRETA is thriving because of our continual adaptation. In a country rocked by opioid-related deaths and a region working to update its addiction services in both mainstream healthcare and specialty treatment settings, we have placed our focus on quality improvement projects. With a distinctly boots-on-the-ground approach, IRETA works closely with clients to identify specific target outcomes and implement change plans that create measurable progress in organizational efficiency and the lives of people with substance use disorders.
We are honored to be celebrating our 20th anniversary and deeply indebted to the many individuals who helped create and sustain this organization over time. The need for better responses to substance use disorders is clear, and we are proud to be working toward them.
Peter F. Luongo, PhD
Executive Director, IRETA
IRETA Milestones, 1999-2019
» 1999: IRETA created as a training and policy institute under parent company St. Francis Hospital, appoints Michael T. Flaherty, Ph.D. as first Executive Director
» 1999: IRETA assumes leadership of an annual fellowship in substance use disorders for medical students, funded by the Scaife Family Foundation
» 2000: IRETA begins offering Regional Training Institutes for addiction professionals throughout Pennsylvania in partnership with the PA Bureau of Drug & Alcohol Programs
» 2002: IRETA receives federal grant to serve as a regional Addiction Technology Transfer Center (2002-2012)
» 2003: IRETA creates the Leadership Institute, offering training and mentorship for addiction professionals in Pennsylvania and New York (2003-2011)
» 2003: Pennsylvania receives Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) training grant, names IRETA as a statewide trainer (2003-2008)
» 2006: IRETA publishes the first of four monographs on recovery-oriented systems of care, in partnership with William White, the national ATTC Network, and other national addiction experts
» 2009: IRETA begins long-term partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, providing training about substance use screening for healthcare professionals and students
» 2011: Dr. Peter F. Luongo assumes the role of Executive Director
» 2011: IRETA begins long-term partnership with the Federal Judicial Center, providing quality improvement consultation for problem-solving courts
» 2012: IRETA receives federal grant to serve as a national resource center on SBIRT in partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago (2012-2017)
» 2013: IRETA begins multi-year project providing program evaluation and technical assistance to a western Pennsylvania community corrections treatment provider
» 2014: IRETA’s Board adopts a new mission statement, “Helping people respond effectively to substance use and related issues,” which reflects a new focus on quality improvement rather than training and policy
» 2016: IRETA begins long-term partnership with the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), creating evidence-based clinical guidelines and providing additional subject matter consultation
» 2016: Launch of the annual citywide Pittsburgh Recovery Walk, coordinated by IRETA
» 2017: Longitudinal evaluation showing the lasting impact of the Scaife Fellowship in Substance Use Disorders published in the journal Substance Abuse
» 2017: First of IRETA’s multi-year clinical quality improvement projects for PA methadone programs begins (by 2019, this project has expanded to five programs and continues to grow)
» 2018: Once funded almost entirely by state and federal grants, IRETA’s budget is only 5% grant-funded, 95% funded by contracts
» 2019: IRETA is contracted to provide quality improvement services for a variety of providers in western Pennsylvania, including a regional health system, a mental health treatment facility, and an addiction treatment facility
» 2019: To celebrate our 20th anniversary, IRETA hosts a community forum in Pittsburgh, “Complex Barriers to High-Quality Addiction Treatment” and becomes a lead sponsor of the Pittsburgh Recovery Walk