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The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services NCDHHS is investing $5.5 million to expand the FIT Wellness program, part of the North Carolina Formerly Incarcerated Transition Program (NC FIT) led by Evan Ashkin, MD, in the UNC Department of Family Medicine. The investment aims to improve reentry services for the justice-involved population. FIT Wellness delivers psychiatric and physical health care services along with connections to community supports such as housing, transportation, and phones for people in the state prison system who have Serious Mental Illness. The program is a collaboration between the UNC departments of Family Medicine and Psychiatry. Ted Zarzar, MD, is the Lead Psychiatrist for FIT Wellness, overseeing the program.

Serious Mental Illness affects 15% of men and 31% of women in jails, and 85% of the prison population has a substance use disorder or was incarcerated for a crime related to substance use. Since 2020, NCDHHS funding has created or expanded 23 diversion programs for substance use disorder and 29 community-led reentry programs for substance use disorder delivered by a range of agencies.

NC FIT Team 2024

As part of its historic $835 million investment to transform behavioral health, the 2023-2025 state budget invests $99 million to support for people who are involved in the justice system by increasing services related to reentry, diversion and capacity restoration for people who interact with the justice system. The department’s investment aligns with Governor Cooper’s recently announced Executive Order No. 303, which provides for a whole-of-government approach to improving reentry for formerly incarcerated people in North Carolina.

“We are moving quickly to make the most of our new investments and get people the behavioral health care they need and deserve,” said NC Health and Human Services Secretary Kody H. Kinsley. “By partnering with UNC School of Medicine and proven programs like NC FIT, we make an immediate difference because we are investing in care that we know works.”

Currently operating in Wake County, FIT Wellness offers continued psychiatric care for people with SMI who are being released from state prison. Participants work with a Peer Support Specialist with a personal history of incarceration and other care team members who assist with the development of a comprehensive reentry plan for a participant’s physical and behavioral health care needs.

Compared to the general population, people reentering society after incarceration are 50 times more likely to die from an overdose during the first two weeks post-release. With the right behavioral health care and connections to community support systems to meet their needs, 75% of FIT Wellness participants have had no emergency department visit within three months of release, and 81% have had no hospital visit.

“After an individual is released from an incarcerated setting, it can be quite difficult to navigate treatment services, transportation, employment and housing,” said Kelly Crosbie, Director of the NCDHHS Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Use Services. “By connecting returning citizens with a knowledgeable peer and a support team, FIT Wellness ensures people with SMI have access to fully integrated health care and the community supports they need during a critical time of transition.”

Since August 2022, FIT Wellness has accepted referred participants from across the state, representing 30% of North Carolina state prisons. The $5.5 million investment from NCDHHS will help to expand these services to additional counties, improve resources and increase the number of patients served by the program. The investment will provide for an estimated 100 additional patients per site to be served annually through the new FIT Wellness locations.

Funding provided by NCDHHS will be used to:

  • Establish a new FIT Wellness program site at Piedmont Health Services in Chapel Hill, a Federally Qualified Health Center serving patients living in Durham and Orange counties.
  • Establish a new FIT Wellness program at MedNorth Health Center in Wilmington, an FQHC serving New Hanover County.
  • Support participant costs across all FIT Wellness sites, including resources like immediate post-release housing, transportation, durable medical equipment, medication assistance for participants who lack coverage, phones and phone cards.
  • Promote training opportunities for medical students and psychiatry residents to enhance experiences working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with SMI.

“The FIT Program is grateful to have the opportunity to expand our FIT Wellness program in our state,” said NC FIT Director Dr. Evan Ashkin. “This investment will allow us to grow our efforts in improving linkages to mental health care, essential health services and reentry for people released from incarceration who suffer from serious mental illness.”


Article based on press release from NCDHHS.