Odyssey House Louisiana Caring for the Community

A city is only as healthy as its most marginalized community.

New Orleans is a collection of communities, and it’s at the community level where health disparities, access and outcomes are most apparent — and where they can most effectively be addressed. As the CDC puts it, “Our health and well-being are products of not only the health care we receive and the choices we make, but also the places where we live, learn, work, and play.”

The city of New Orleans recognizes this, which is why the New Orleans Health Department (NOHD) has brought together a diverse group of individuals and organizations across sectors to form the New Orleans Community Health Improvement Partnership. The partners share a vision for health improvement, goals, resources, and accountability, with the goal of developing a “shared vision for health in our city, which defines all collective actions.”

A case in point is Odyssey House Louisiana. The organization’s programs are dedicated to serving the most marginalized vulnerable community members suffering from the disease of addiction. The continuum of care includes inpatient, residential detox, intensive outpatient, supportive, housing case management, prevention, outreach, community health centers, pharmacy, and other medical services.

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“We serve the whole person and render a variety of primary care, behavioral health and substance use services,” said Helena Likaj, director of prevention, clinics and 340B pharmacy departments at Odyssey House Louisiana. “These services are made available to individuals who are clients in our inpatient programs, clients at partner agencies, or general community members in need of the services.”

Likaj leads Odyssey House’s community health center, pharmacy and prevention-outreach departments. She said community health organizations must have a robust continuum of care because the most marginalized and vulnerable community members face a lot of obstacles when it comes to accessing healthcare, especially when it comes to stigma surrounding addiction.

“Our goal is that when an individual steps through our doors, they are met with stigma-free, compassionate care and can receive comprehensive care, all under one roof,” Likaj said.

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In one visit to an Odyssey House clinic, a patient can walk in and discuss their hepatitis status or their high blood pressure or birth control, as well as their behavioral health diagnosis. They can talk about their substance abuse issues, get their labs drawn, and leave with their medication in hand from an on-site pharmacy.

Likaj said the work can sometimes be difficult. They can see a high rate of no-shows and non-adherence to medications, as well as burnout and fatigue among the staff. There are also the financial challenges. Community health centers like Odyssey Health are often underfunded. But despite these challenges, Likaj said she’s inspired by their clients and their team daily.

“To see and hear the feedback from our clients that this is the first time they have ever felt like they were seen and heard for who they are is incredible,” Likaj said. “To see that our staff members show up day in and day out, even in the midst of a pandemic, even after a hurricane, is also incredible because they know that our clients depend on us.”

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Odyssey House Louisiana is currently working with partners to increase access to reproductive health services at their clinics. They’re increasing screenings and preventative care related to colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and cervical cancer. They’re also working to increase understanding of the disease of addiction, the impact that fentanyl and xylazine is having in communities, and distributing resources to reduce the rates of overdoses, such as Narcan and testing strips.

For Likaj, it’s just part of the mission, and the work continues. “We’re here to educate, empower, and equip our community,” she said.

Drew Hawkins is a writer and journalist in New Orleans. He’s the health equity reporter in the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among public radio stations in Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF), Alabama (WBHM) and Mississippi (MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting) and NPR. He’s also the producer and host of Micro, a LitHub podcast for short but powerful writing.


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