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Stigma, poor data barriers to addiction treatment in Western Pennsylvania

| Saturday, May 31, 2014, 6:15 p.m.

When a Pittsburgh methadone treatment clinic received a $1 million grant in 1998 for a new facility, it picked Braddock because many of its clients came from there.

But the clinic drew opponents who claimed that Braddock didn't have a heroin problem and that the clinic would draw addicts from elsewhere. So Tadiso Inc. in Manchester instead used the money to provide Braddock clients with transportation to its main facility.

“They boycotted us right out of there,” said Kristina DelPrincipe, the company's chief financial officer.

The change of heart reveals the stigma methadone clinics encounter and the hidden nature of opiate addiction.

Several experts told the Tribune-Review that no one has a good estimate for the number of people in Western Pennsylvania, much less in an individual neighborhood, addicted to opiates.

That's a number officials need to know to combat the problem, said U.S. Attorney David Hickton.

“How could you address any problem without knowing the full frontier of it?” he said.

He set up a working group in April that, as one of its tasks, is looking at available statistics and how to refine them. He is hopeful the group will have recommendations this summer.

Even determining how many people are in treatment or seeking treatment can be difficult, said Peter Luongo, executive director of the Institute for Research, Education & Training in Addictions, Downtown.

“Everything is really decentralized in Pennsylvania,” he said.

By comparison, treatment programs in Maryland and several other states use the same electronic health record, said Luongo, formerly the head of the Maryland agency that oversees treatment programs.

There, he had information at his fingertips that doesn't exist and must be laboriously gathered in Pennsylvania.

“They're pretty defenseless here,” he said.

His organization is working with Allegheny County to improve data it has.

The county wants to respond quicker to trends such as the increase in fentanyl-laced heroin overdoses that killed 22 people this year, said Latika Davis-Jones, administrator of the county's Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services.

The aim is to get “a true assessment of patterns and emerging trends,” she said.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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