Bucks contingent joining rally to protest Wolf's plans for drug and alcohol programs

Protesters will rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday against Gov. Tom Wolf's plan to merge the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs with other departments into an expanded Department of Health and Human Services.

A caravan will meet at the office of State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, of Bensalem, at 7:15 a.m. and travel to the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission office, 600 Louis Drive, Warminster, before heading to Harrisburg.

"All are welcome. Carpooling will be arranged," said Jay Kurko, founder of the Lower Bucks Addiction Task Force, which is coordinating the trip to Harrisburg. He could not estimate how many people will participate.

In Harrisburg, the group will meet at 10:30 a.m. at River Street Garage, 218 N. Second St., before heading to the Capitol Rotunda for the rally at 11 a.m. 

DiGirolamo questioned why the governor would want to "collapse" the department, which is doing a lot to combat the opioid abuse epidemic, and "bury it in a large bureaucracy," he said.

"In my 22 years in the Legislature, this is the worst idea I've ever heard," DiGirolamo said.

In a letter he sent to House colleagues in February, the Republican representative of the 18th Legislative District said he was "utterly baffled" by Wolf's proposal. "We established the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs by near unanimous votes of the House and Senate with the express purpose of bringing laser focus and muscular leadership to this problem so devastating to our families and to our communities," DiGirolamo said.

"We're in the middle of an epidemic, and they're going to suppress and change the leadership," asked Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers of Pennsylvania, which is coordinating the rally in Harrisburg. "It doesn't make sense."

He said that by putting the department under the Health Department, it would lose secretary status and direct access to the governor.

J.J. Abbott, Wolf's press secretary, said that the director of the drug and alcohol programs still would be a member of the governor's inner circle of advisers. "The plan would preserve a cabinet-level position," he said.

No one is a bigger advocate for those suffering from addiction than the governor, said Abbott.

Wolf announced a plan earlier this year to merge four departments — Aging, Health, Drug and Alcohol Programs and Human Services —into one to save money and coordinate overlapping services. The change might save money in services and prescription coverage for seniors, but there would be no cost savings for drug and alcohol services, Beck said.

The governor believes that combining the departments would provide better service to those afflicted by drug or alcohol addiction because many receive treatment through Medicaid, which is funded through the Department of Human Services. That department set up Centers of Excellence to distribute the funding for addiction treatment.

The Bucks County Centers of Excellence are the Penn Foundation in West Rockhill and the Family Service Association in Middletown. Both offer drug treatment programs for those who have some type of insurance, including Medicaid. These centers receive their Medicaid funding through the Department of Human Services, Abbott said.

However, the Department of Drug and Alcohol program has a different agency dealing with its addiction treatment and prevention services in each county. While the single-county authorities coordinate with the Centers of Excellence, one of their main purposes is to provide treatment for those without insurance, including Medicaid.

The Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission — a private, nonprofit agency — is a single county authority or lead agency coordinating addiction treatment and prevention services for people living here, said Diane Rosati, commission executive director. "We are really the safety net for people who do not have other coverage.... This issue is so important because we're in the midst of an overdose epidemic," she said.

DiGirolamo, who is chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he was the primary sponsor when a separate department for drug and alcohol programs was proposed in 2010 and that the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs has been in operation since 2012. Its accomplishments, he said, include the distribution of naloxone to police departments to reverse overdoses and the take-back of 50 tons of prescription medicines that otherwise would be disposed of improperly or get into the hands of a potential addict. It also has distributed guidelines to physicians treating people with addictive medications and has allocated $100 million to help people get treatment for addiction.

An outline of Wolf's proposed budget indicates the Centers of Excellence around the state would receive expanded funding and the state would provide $10 million in funding for distribution of naloxone to counteract drug overdoses. The drug would be given to first responders and police departments. The current state budget does not provide for naloxone, but the state distributes the drug through grants from pharmaceutical companies, Abbott said. Wolf also proposes $3.4 million to expand drug courts throughout the state.

The House of Representatives will have a hearing on the proposed departmental mergers before the rally Wednesday. Beck urged those going to Harrisburg and others to contact their representatives to voice support for keeping Drug and Alcohol Programs as a separate Cabinet-level department.

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