Brett Sholtis is a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.
Housing for people with opioid use disorder tops the list of spending from a large federal grant to address opioid addiction in Pennsylvania.
In September 2018, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s administration secured the $55.9 million from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Eight months later, the administration has utilized $32.6 million, according to state data obtained by Transforming Health.
Here’s a look at the top three areas of spending:
Housing for people in recovery
While many people take their house or apartment for granted, a lack of stable housing is one of the main barriers to addiction recovery, according to Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol program (D-DAP) Secretary Jennifer Smith.
That’s why large funding allocations focus on housing, employment and transportation.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Robert Fifter, 62, has been addicted to heroin since he was 10. He said he’s getting too old to sleep outside in the winter.
“The three are so closely tied to one another,” she said. “If you don’t have transportation you don’t have a job. If you don’t have a job you can’t afford housing. It’s sort of this vicious cycle they get caught in.”
The state has granted $15 million to 16 housing support service providers, the data shows. Those are for single-unit housing such as an apartment and are intended to serve as a short-term solution.
Paying medical workers’ student loans
The state put $5 million into a program “allocated to medical practitioners who agree to practice in high need areas” as well as doctors who specialize in opioid treatment, the data shows.
Currently there’s a shortage of doctors with training and specialization in opioid use disorder treatment, Smith said.
“Often-times, it’s more rural areas where it’s harder to attract workforce in this particular professional area,” Smith said. “Salary isn’t always as competitive as it is in more urban places,” noting that the high-need areas are determined by a federal designation.
The workforce development loan focuses on physicians but is also open to nurse practitioners, counselors and clinicians.
Brett Sholtis / Transforming Health
Stacy Zeigler points to scars, now barely visible in the sunlight, from where she used to inject heroin.
Drugs to keep people off heroin
The state devoted $4 million to continue operating its “Pennsylvania Coordinated Medication-Assisted Treatment program.”
“Medication-assisted treatment” is the use of opioid replacement drugs such as buprenorphine, methadone or naltrexone, which can prevent opioid cravings for people in recovery.
The administration launched the program in 2017 with $26.5 million in federal funding under an Obama-era program known as “21st Century CURES.”
The effort provides such care to people without insurance and others who might not have access to it.
Funding also connects physicians with regional medication-assisted treatment experts, in what’s known as a “hub-and-spoke” model.
An additional $3.2 million allocation provides medication-assisted treatment for people who are in prisons, the data shows.
Here’s a breakdown of the rest of the funding and what it’s being used for:
$2.7 million in prevention and education services, disbursed to five separate groups in Lancaster, Beaver, Schuylkill, Fayette and Erie counties
$1.5 million for prevention and health to county mental health, intellectual disabilities and substance abuse agencies
$1.25 million to Pennsylvania State Police “to set up six criminal investigations for illegal drugs in areas of the state with high overdoses, overdose deaths and naloxone administration rates.” These efforts are designed to divert low-level drug offenders from prison and into treatment, Smith said.
$1 million to Commonwealth Media Services for a public awareness campaign slated for late summer
$600,000 to counties for cognitive behavioral therapy training
$508,640 to First Choice Services to run an outreach hotline
$500,000 to Jewish Healthcare Foundation for a “perinatal quality collaborative”
$425,000 to Department of Drug and Alcohol Services to produce a public awareness campaign for military veterans
$400,000 to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to train doctors “to screen for early signs of addiction”
$300,000 to Pennsylvania Medical Society for “opioid stewardship and training”
$250,000 to Department of Health to host medication-assisted treatment summits
The deadline to apply for another year of SAMHSA funding is approaching, Smith said. The state plans to seek funding to continue these programs and start new ones.