In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, the state's top senator attacked the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs' approach to treating heroin addicts and questioned its relationship with the drug industry lobbying group Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, which has listed a Berks County mailing address on federal forms.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati told Wolf in a letter dated Monday and obtained by the Reading Eagle that DDAP appeared unwilling to embrace medication-assisted treatment for addicts and instead focused on "a narrow, antiquated agenda of long-term, abstinence-based treatment."

He also questioned the state agency's relationship with DASPOP. The nonprofit lists a Robesonia post office box as a mailing address, apparently because some of its paper work has been done by a woman who also works at a Berks-based treatment agency.

"The unbridled control DASPOP wields over DDAP is deeply troubling," Scarnati, a Republican, wrote to Wolf, a Democrat.

The Eagle described DASPOP's behind-the-scenes clout in a story published in late 2015. It reported that while DASPOP has huge influence on drug treatment lawmaking, it has no employees, rebuffs inquiries about its membership list and is led publicly by a registered lobbyist, Deb Beck.

Attempts to reach Beck and Steve Roman, chairman of DASPOP, were unsuccessful.

A spokesman for Wolf, Jeff Sheridan, said Friday the governor had received the letter and would make a written response. Sheridan said Gary Tennis, the DDAP secretary, had done phenomenal work.

Concerning DASPOP, Sheridan said: "We want to work with Senator Scarnati. There is no outside influence that has any control over this administration."

Nearly 2,500 people died of drug overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2014, including 800 heroin-related deaths. Officials have said the still-untallied death total for 2015 will surpass 2014 and will increase yet again in 2016.

Massive new public spending on anti-drug initiatives is being considered as the crisis worsens.

Two general approaches to treating substance abusers involve abstinence, or staying away from drugs completely, and medication-assisted treatment. The abstinence approach is practiced at many 12-step programs and long-term treatment centers.

"The case DDAP and DASPOP continually make for long-term residential treatment in the media, in one-on-one meetings with legislators and in public hearings is not based on sound science," Scarnati wrote to Wolf. "Although DASPOP and DDAP continue to emphatically state that the 'research shows the gold standard' for opioid addiction treatment is greater lengths of stay-in residential treatment, they have yet to provide that research."

Meanwhile, he said, medication-assisted treatment has been proved effective.

Scarnati asked that DDAP provide copies of research and figures on how many people are being turned away from treatment because of the claim that beds are not available.

Wolf's three priorities during the ongoing fiscal 2017 budget process, Sheridan said, are achieving a balanced budget, funding education in adequate fashion and providing money to fight the heroin crisis.

Wolf wants to secure new spending of $34 million - an amount that could be supplemented by a federal match of $18 million - to operate health homes that would help previously untreated, drug-abusing Medicaid recipients. Those "Centers for Excellence" would use medication and other approaches to treat heroin and opioid drug abusers.

Ford Turner | Reporter
Ford Turner covers special projects and investigations for the Reading Eagle.
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