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State drug abuse, awareness chief says cost thwarts drug treatment

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Gary Tennis, State Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs, talks about drug awareness on Wednesday April 24, 2013 at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Gary Tennis.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Gary Tennis, State Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs, talks about drug awareness on Wednesday April 24, 2013 at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg.

Pennsylvania is only able to adequately treat one out of every eight drug addicts because of a lack of money for treatment programs, says the newly minted secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Gary Tennis, a former prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said insufficient funding is one reason why Westmoreland County does not have a detoxification center or more inpatient beds for addicts who are turned away because of a lack of space.

“Around the state, we have empty beds because of a lack of funding,” Tennis said. “We picked the worst possible disease to under-fund.”

The department came into existence last July and has such a small staff — 76 employees — that Tennis often answers the phone himself.

Drug counselors complain that a lack of inpatient beds places addicts in a holding pattern and often starting detoxification without proper medical care or oversight, which could lead to death.

Tennis was in Westmoreland County Wednesday on a fact-finding mission sponsored by state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield in response to a spike in drug overdose deaths as heroin and other narcotic abuse reaches epidemic proportions. There were 78 drug overdose deaths in the county in 2012, according to the Westmoreland County Coroner's Office. There have been 33 this year.

“No one has seen the kind of spike you're seeing right how,” Tennis said.

State funding is funneled to the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission, which dispenses money to different treatment programs. The commission decides how the money is allocated and the types of treatment that are made available. Monessen-based SPHS receives the lion's share of funding.

“How can we get the most people into recovery?” Tennis asked. “I'm seeing overdose rates going up.”

Treatment is vital, he said.

Tennis said for every dollar invested in drug treatment, taxpayers save $7 within a year in court and health care costs. Drug addiction in Westmoreland County, as well as across the state, starts with physicians overprescribing powerful narcotics. When doctors stop access to painkillers, patients turn to heroin or other opiates to stave off withdrawal symptoms.

The transition, Tennis said, is creating a new generation of drug addicts that defy the usual stereotype.

Overprescribing of narcotics, he said, is leading to addiction “at a level we've never seen before. Heroin always has been a problem but it's entering a new demographic that we haven't seen before.”

Tennis said there are several initiatives to curb the problem. They include:

• Setting up collection boxes for prescription drugs at local police stations so children can't steal drugs from the family medicine cabinet, which often is a starting point toward addiction.

• Training physicians to identify addicts so early intervention can be started through a screening, brief intervention, referral and treatment.

• Enacting House Bill 317, which would create the Pharmaceutical Accountability Monitoring System to create a database to track patients who receive repeated narcotic prescriptions. There is a similar bill pending in the Senate. The aim of the legislation, Tennis said, is to prevent “doctor shopping” by addicts.

Tennis said local hospitals need to take a leadership role in treating overdose cases.

“We have work to do with our hospitals,” Tennis said. “I can't make any promises how soon that will happen.”

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at

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