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Allegheny County Says It Needs More Money To Fight Opioid Epidemic

Matt Nemeth
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County needs more resources to battle the opioid epidemic gripping southwestern Pennsylvania, Human Services and Health department representatives said at a state legislative hearing Tuesday.

“Our department has seen no increase in funding for the past five years and no restoration of the 10 percent cut applied across the board to human services under the previous administration,” Human Services Director Marc Cherna said.

The number of overdose deaths in the county continues to rise.

According to Abby Wilson, deputy director for public policy and community relations at the county health department, 424 people died of drug overdoses in Allegheny County last year, a 38 percent increase from 2014. More than 3,300 Pennsylvanians died of drug overdoses in 2015.

Wilson said the majority of local overdoses were due to opioids, and the majority of opioid overdoses were due to heroin.

“As we begin to diminish the supply of oral opioids, we are concerned that there are numerous additional addicted individuals who will transition to heroin and face overdose risk,” Wilson said.

Officials said many of those who died of drug overdoses in Allegheny County last year had already had contact with the county in some way.

“Many of these individuals died within 30 days of their most recent service or within 30 days of being released from jail,” said Latika Davis-Jones, an administrator with the Human Services Department's Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services. “The jail and our behavioral health system are uniquely poised to intervene earlier in the progression of this chronic disease.”

Davis-Jones stressed that addiction is a chronic disease that demands a continuum of care, from prevention to ongoing support for people in recovery.

“Treatment works and recovery is possible, however, currently we do not have enough capacity to treat everyone in a timely fashion should they want help,” Davis-Jones said. “Therefore we need to have increased funding to expand access to high quality substance use disorder treatment.”

Davis-Jones said the county also needs more funding for public awareness campaigns aimed at expanding the use of Naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, and educating physicians on responsible prescribing practices.

In the 2016-17 budget, lawmakers set aside $10 million for behavioral health services and $5 million for medical assistance funding. Some of that money will be used to fund the Opioid Use Disorder Centers of Excellence, which will treat up to 4,500 additional people who do not currently have access to treatment.