This month, members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives held five joint policy hearings across the state to hear testimony regarding the epidemic of opioid abuse and overdoses in recent years.
Last year, Pennsylvania saw a 23-percent increase in overdose deaths, with 3,383 fatalities. There were 117 drug-related deaths in Bucks County alone, with a 37-percent rise in heroin mentions in those overdoses.
The hearings, in advance of a possible special session this fall, came to Bucks County last Tuesday. Seven speakers gave testimony at the Health & Wellness Center in Warrington regarding the impact of addiction on youth, the perspective from law enforcement and statements from the medical community.
Among them, Judge Rea Boylan reported on the efficacy of the Bucks County Drug Court. It’s an alternative to traditional sentencing where offenders are supervised closely through treatment and rehabilitation programs. Those programs last significantly longer than the common, 7-, 10- or 30-day detox or rehabilitation tracks.
Many of the participants, Boylan noted, have been using drugs for more than a decade by the time they end up in drug court.
“If somebody is engaging in the same behavior and affecting their body the same way over the course of 14 years, it is unrealistic to expect that in 30 days or some short period of time they are going to change their behaviors or ways to deal with life,” she said.
The court in Bucks has had 249 participants since being established in 2010, 100 of whom have graduated so far. The retention rate is 70 percent, and 96 percent of those able to work have jobs. The program boasts only a 13-percent recidivism rate, which is much lower than the rate of repeat offenders in traditional sentencing.
The court ensures participants have a high school diploma or GED, and when they work it must be on the books. Many have enrolled or returned to college.
Notably, said Boylan, the prior participants who relapsed immediately went for treatment. “I think that’s partially because they’ve had this long track record and they’ve been given the skills to know what to do,” she said.
Warrington resident Cris Fiore added personal perspective to the hearings. He told the story of his son, who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, and the challenges he and his wife faced as parents.
“Anthony had a substance abuse problem. It didn’t define him, but it dominated his life,” said Fiore. “As the parent of an addict, you are always running behind, trying to catch up. You spend all your time worrying about what’s going on with your child … Think, for a minute, about how hard it is to come to the realization that your child is using, they can’t be trusted, they are stealing from you … and you can’t believe anything they say.”
Fiore also discussed the legislation for which he and his wife are petitioning in their son’s name. Anthony’s Act calls for state and federal legislation to pay for a minimum of 90 days of drug or alcohol treatment.
Currently, Act 106 in Pennsylvania requires insurance plans to cover at least seven days of detox, 30 days of residential treatment and another 30 days of outpatients treatment. But, said Fiore, “We didn’t know that many rehabs don’t know about Act 106 and many insurance companies bound by it simply refuse to follow it.”
Anthony’s Act would also require insurance companies to send policyholders a one-page notice laying out exactly what the policy covers.
“My wife, Valerie, and I have learned more about the disease of addiction, the terrible power of opioids, and what it takes to become a person in long-term recovery since Anthony’s death than we ever knew when he was alive,” said Fiore.