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Aging, addiction advocates worried about consolidation plan

The proposed consolidation of Pennsylvania’s departments of health, human services, aging, and drug and alcohol programs worries many advocates, but some say it could make it easier to operate.

Advocates for the elderly and for drug and alcohol programs on Thursday raised alarms that the voices of their constituents will be lost in Gov. Wolf's proposed consolidation of the state departments of health, human services, aging, and drug and alcohol programs — especially as the state grapples with what experts call the worst addiction epidemic ever.

Speaking at a joint Pennsylvania Senate hearing in Northeast Philadelphia, Michael Harle, chief executive of Gaudenzia Inc., a nonprofit addiction-treatment provider, described a decades-long process, starting in the early 1970s, to get a state department devoted to drug and alcohol addiction with a direct line to the governor.

In his written testimony, Harle included an organization chart showing that substance-abuse programs would be led by one of 10 deputy secretaries. "It really looks like burying substance abuse," Harle told the senators.

At the end of the three-hour hearing at Plumbers Local 690 Union Hall, Rachel Levine, state's physician general in the Department of Health, responded to the concerns of Harle and others who testified. She said the Wolf administration feels strongly that the consolidation of the agencies is the best way to deal with the opioid epidemic, providing examples of different agencies playing a role in opioid programs.

"The agency will actually be able to function better under the department of health and human services," she said.

Five of the 12 advocates to testify Thursday were involved in aging services and advocacy.

A major worry for the aging advocates is the fate of Pennsylvania Lottery funds, which are used to pay for programs for the elderly. Contributions to the Lottery Fund totaled more than $1.12 billion in fiscal 2016.

"The proposed move threatens the sacrosanctity of the Lottery funds," Reneé C. Cunningham, associate director of Center in the Park, a Germantown senior-services center, told the senators. "It could easily get diluted and used for other purposes, despite denials of that potential."

Experts in public health and services for disabled people under the age of 60 said they saw promise in the consolidation if it eliminated duplicated oversight and auditing. Nicole Marie Pruitt, director of the Inglis adult day program, for example, said she operates under three different sets of quality metrics and has to maintain three different care plans for her clients.