2011-10-27 / Local & State

Newly Created Pa. Drug, Alcohol Agency On Hold

By Mark Scolforo

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A new state agency for drug and alcohol issues has been put on hold by the Corbett administration because of unexpectedly high costs to set it up and a need for further studies.

Gov. Tom Corbett has not announced his choice for secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, which was created by a law that was passed last year and took effect July 1. It would be the first new Cabinetlevel department in Pennsylvania since 1995.

The Health Department, which currently performs many of the new department's projected functions, has been making plans to get the new department up and running, even though a final decision on its fate has not been made.

“What we have to do first (is) to make sure we have all the pieces in place to make this happen,” said Health Department spokeswoman Christine Cronkright. “Do we have enough in the budget to fully fund the department?”

Corbett spokeswoman Kirsten Page said a preliminary review indicated the costs were more than had been anticipated. Declining tax revenues and other factors created a multibillion-dollar problem in passage of the current year’s budget, and the forecast for 2012-13 does not appear any better.

“At a time when all Pennsylvania citizens are doing more with less, it is an odd time to create more bureaucracy,” Page said.

Bill Patton, a spokesman for the House Democrats, said the department was designed to bypass bureaucracy, not create more.

“No administration gets to decide which laws it will follow and which it will ignore,” Patton said. “The executive branch is constitutionally obligated to execute the act.”

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, the prime sponsor of the legislation, said he was “more than a little disappointed” in the delay. He said there are more than 700 licensed facilities in Pennsylvania that do some type of substance abuse treatment.

“I expect that according to (the law), the governor, at some point in time, fairly quickly, would name a secretary and get this up and running. It's the law,” he said.

A Cabinet-level department would provide more high-profile leadership and be better positioned to address drug and alcohol dependency issues across state agencies, said Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, a public policy advocacy group.

“There is not a high-level, coordinated, muscular leadership effort aimed at this problem,” Beck said. “I would be surprised if they don't move forward. I think it's an opportunity to really solve some problems in the commonwealth, life-saving problems.”

According to Beck’s organization, about 800,000 Pennsylvania residents have a drug or alcohol problem for which they are not able to get treatment.

When the legislation to create the department passed the state Senate in July 2010 by a 43-7 vote, opponents said it would inevitably add costs. Estimates at that time ranged from $1 million to $1.4 million.

Brinda Penyak of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which endorsed the bill, said she was not surprised the law has not been implemented.

“Given the financial constraints that the state's been dealing with, something that spends on the administrative side, as opposed to programs, is probably going to be looked at as `maybe not right now,”' Penyak said.

The Health Department's existing Bureau of Drug and Alcohol programs has a staff of 46, and most of the block grant funds it receives are allocated to county entities that administer local substance abuse programs, Cronkright said.

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