Opioids an overwhelming issue for families in Pennsylvania

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(The Center Square) — To guide opioid-related spending in the future, the Department of Health wants to figure out which programs are doing the best.

“The opioid crisis has been an overwhelming issue for families across the country,” Acting Secretary Debra Bogen said during a Senate budget hearing Thursday. “We should think about it as a family (issue) and how it impacts but just families, but communities. Anything we can do to address the need for family intervention and family care is important.”

The negative effects of opioids don’t only hit drug users.

“In Allegheny County … they recorded more than 1,000 children — a quarter of whom were 5 years of age or younger — had a parent die due to a lethal overdose,” said Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Reading. “I would imagine that the 66 other counties likely need to be looking at this issue as well.”

In recent years, more than 5,000 Pennsylvanians have died from drug overdoses annually.

“We know that if you have an opioid exposure, you have an increased risk for family challenges and for outcomes,” Bogen said. “Aligning people with early intervention services is really important.”

The Department, she said, is doing more to provide those services and parsing out what works and what doesn’t.

“Rather than focusing on the negative, can we look at families that have had a challenge, and have overcome it and are doing well, to figure out what services they did get … that made a difference in their lives.”

Beyond opioids, the department also expanded upon its recent announcement to launch a medical debt relief program.

Bogen called it a pilot program.

“We want to try and see how it goes,” she said. “If it works really well, we’d like to continue it.”

Pennsylvania has 1 million residents with medical debt totaling $1.8 billion, and the department expects to buy debt for “pennies on the dollar.”

“If you have debt, you can’t really get a loan,” Bogen said.

The department would contract with nonprofits to purchase the debt, which would then be forgiven.