The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the likelihood for an individual struggling with an addiction to overdose or relapse, due to increased uncertainty and a concoction of feelings including anxiety, lack of control and isolation. On August 25, I hosted a House Human Services Committee Informational meeting about drug and alcohol treatment during this unprecedented time. The meeting held at the capitol and virtually was comprised of multiple presenters explaining how the coronavirus has impacted Pennsylvanians struggling with substance abuse disorders. The primary goal of our meeting was to learn about the effects of the pandemic and what the legislature can do to address these issues.
The first panel included input from Secretary Jennifer Smith of the Department of Drug & Alcohol Programs (DDAP) and Kristen Houser (Deputy Secretary of the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS). DDAP is the state authority that is responsible for the prevention, education, research, treatment and training activities related to substance use disorders in Pennsylvania. OMHSAS shared that between March and June approximately 200,000 new individuals were eligible for Medicaid Health Choices Behavioral Health coverage, which includes treatment for substance use disorders – this reflects a 7.6% increase. DDAP is responsible for regulating drug and alcohol treatment facilities. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has provided exceptions to the regulatory requirements to allow stable patients to receive take-home doses of medications for up to 28 days and those that are less than stable, but can safely handle take-home medication may receive a prescription of take-home doses up to two weeks. Part of successful treatment for individuals struggling with addiction is accessibility to medication-assisted treatment, known as MAT. In addition to these changes, efforts have shifted focus to telehealth to best adapt to the needs of individuals struggling with addiction to ensure they stay on a path to sobriety and recovery.
Panel two included commentary from presenters from the Pennsylvania Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence (PATOD), Pyramid Healthcare, and Acadia Healthcare. Individuals receiving treatment from these providers were given the option to continue counseling via telehealth to cease disruption in care. Telehealth is a virtual treatment option, which connects an individual directly to their physicians and support team. While there are challenges with telehealth including broadband access, reimbursements for services, and regulatory oversight, the success of individual participation and their satisfaction with telehealth services has been encouraging. This panel acknowledged challenges in reimbursements and financial support from MCOs. The increased costs of providing adequate services, while maintaining a strong level of care and support is a concern that needs to be addressed. There have been multiple programs across the state that have closed due to the severe underfunding, which is a great challenge for Pennsylvanians who struggle with addictions.
During the third and fourth panels, we received testimony from experts in the behavioral health field, and from executive directors from respective county Drug and Alcohol partners. Dissemination of information regarding services and support during the COVID-19 pandemic is essential to maintaining ongoing efforts to care for individuals with a substance use disorder. Many topics of concern that were continually raised during the meeting include the need for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for our front-line workers and caregivers as well as requests for additional COVID-19 testing to identify viable threats. Additionally, we must strive for internet connectivity to utilize telehealth services and keep individuals engaged in therapy and their support network. In my remaining time in the legislature, I intend to continue working to address the issues raised during the Human Services meetings to safeguard individuals struggling with addiction and substance use disorders as well protecting our community healthcare workers.
As we continue to navigate these challenging times, it is imperative that we continue to focus on helping those struggling with addictions and substance abuse disorders. Addictions do not discriminate and have an impact in every community in our Commonwealth. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction and is seeking treatment, please call 1-800-662-HELP (4257) or contact the local county drug and alcohol office.
Kailee Fisher contributed to this article.