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What can we improve? State officials meet with Luzerne County drug and alcohol stakeholders

Officials from the Pa. Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs met Tuesday with invited Luzerne County stakeholders at King's College in Wilkes-Barre.
Tom Riese
Officials from the Pa. Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs met Tuesday with invited Luzerne County stakeholders at King's College in Wilkes-Barre.

Representatives from the Pa. Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) stopped in Luzerne County Tuesday to hear from local treatment providers about the opioid crisis and learn how the state can improve its response.

DDAP Secretary Dr. Latika Davis-Jones said it was the seventh stop on a statewide tour to collect feedback from invited partners and visit treatment facilities. She led a roundtable discussion at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre with county employees and representatives from the Children’s Service Center, Acadia Health, New Roots Recovery Center and the Wright Center, among others.

“It’s been a true testament to those in the field,” Davis-Jones said of the tour so far.

Topics ranged from the need for more funding for school drug prevention programs, finding more bilingual case managers for the Hispanic population and continuing medication-assisted treatment for those who leave prison. Luzerne/Wyoming Drug and Alcohol Administrator Ryan Hogan said working with high-risk populations is top-of-mind, especially now that the county received opioid settlement money.

Harm reduction advocates have urged the county to coordinate addiction medication continuations for people when they’re released from prison. They say a person’s lowered tolerance to drugs while incarcerated means they’re at a very high risk for overdose should they relapse. And, having a prescription on-hand when they reenter society would give them a better chance at recovery.

There’s state support for a federal waiver to support substance use disorder for that purpose, DDAP officials said, though approval would go through the state Department of Human Services.

Some in attendance said they worry about high treatment caseloads and managing staff burnout. State staffing regulations that could raise outpatient caseloads from 35 to 50 clients would be unmanageable or “chaotic,” one said. DDAP does grant exceptions for staffing levels in certain cases, Davis-Jones said.

Others said they want to see improvements to the state prescription drug monitoring system, which could alert them to deadly drug interactions if clients use methadone for treatment.

Katie Wilk, who manages sober living homes, asked whether the state would revisit its licensing requirements for recovery houses. Luzerne County currently has no licensed sober homes, she said, though the state still lists one online.

There are grants available to make improvements to facilities and bring them into DDAP compliance, officials said, but they don’t plan to change requirements. Twelve counties in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania don’t have state-licensed recovery houses, according to DDAP’s website.

Participants gave positive feedback about changes to state confidentiality regulations that better align with federal guidelines. Davis-Jones also highlighted an Oct. 11 executive order from Governor Josh Shapiro that forms a behavioral health council, which is meant to “break down silos” and deliver quick addiction care services in Pennsylvania.

DDAP previously held roundtable discussions in Erie, Centre, Montgomery, Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. Upcoming sessions will include Dauphin and Mercer counties, the department said.

The agency is also collecting data from stakeholders online.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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