State budget delays impacting public health efforts

The disagreements and delays in the state Capitol over the annual budget aren’t simply political games. Some believe it’s directly affecting the health and welfare of many Pennsylvanians.

The 2015-16 state budget was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf on June 30, and the Democratic governor has not been able to find common ground with the Republican-controlled Legislature for more than a month now.

The state physician general told The Harrisburg Patriot-News that the budget impasse is holding back the one tool — a prescription drug monitoring system — that could truly put a dent in the state’s rampant abuse of prescription drugs, opioids and heroin.

The monitoring system would allow healthcare providers to see if a patient was recently prescribed certain medications. This would help to prevent ‘doctor shopping,’ which is when a person visits different doctors or the emergency room to obtain several prescriptions and then either use or sell the medications.

"It will help us see if someone is doctor shopping or may be addicted to drugs," said Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine. "It's no miracle, but it's very helpful. We just need the money for it."

The idea is that healthcare providers could intervene and encourage treatment with the information provided by the system. They wouldn’t just have to go off a gut feeling or just simply refuse prescribing, which leads some prescription drug abusers to the streets in search of heroin.

Levine called the drug problem “the biggest health crisis in the state.”

At least 2,488 Pennsylvanians died from a drug overdose last year, but Levine said that number is likely higher because there's no centralized reporting system for coroners in the state.

PublicSource also reported on the lack of uniformity among coroners when determining if someone died of a drug overdose.

Nonprofit social services providers are also burdened by the stalemate in Harrisburg. Wolf recently acknowledged that the delays would cause financial problems for them.

Wolf said on a Pittsburgh radio show that the money organizations borrow to patch the holes while they wait for funding to resume may not be reimbursed by the state either, according to an Associated Press story.

Some providers, like those in child welfare and addiction counseling, say there will be delays and longer waiting lists because of this.

"I want to make sure that the disruption is as little as possible, so I'll continue to work on that," Wolf said. "But ... in the long run, all of us, including the social services agencies, have a vested interest in making sure we do the right thing for Pennsylvania and that's what I'm focused on."

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or at hstockton@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @HalleStockton.