Amid a crisis that is taking thousands of lives, reliable information on Pennsylvania drug abuse treatment centers and recovery homes is almost impossible to find, a mother who lost a son to an overdose said on Monday.
Heather Arata’s 23-year-old son, Brendan Arata of Havertown, Delaware County, died of an overdose five years ago this week, she said at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Reading.
After his death, she and her husband, Larry, formed the nonprofit Opioid Crisis Action Network and have been involved in the issue ever since.
“Some treatment centers and recovery homes are wonderful while others are predatory,” Heather Arata testified. “And due to the largely deregulated state of the industry, it is often impossible to discern the difference.”
The hearing at Reading Area Community College came as the state struggles with getting a handle on a worsening drug overdose crisis that took an estimated 5,410 lives in the latest 12 months for which information is available. That is the fifth-highest total in the nation.
The state licenses about 800 treatment centers and is about to publicize the names of recovery homes — group homes for people fighting substance abuse problems — that finished a new state licensing process.
But Pennsylvania, unlike other states, does not charge treatment centers for licenses.
It also does not fine them when they violate state regulations, and it recently removed a comparison tool from a state website after an Allentown Morning Call article pointed out it showed incorrect data.
“It is almost impossible to get any information on outcomes or safety,” Heather Arata said. “We call upon elected officials to provide commonsense regulation and transparency to this industry so those in recovery and their families can be confident that the treatment center or recovery home they have selected provides the best practices in care and is a safe place to continue to pursue recovery.”
Three Democratic senators at the hearing — Judy Schwank of Berks County, Katie Muth of Montgomery County and Christine Tartaglione of Philadelphia — all called for changes in the state approach to the crisis.
“We have taken our eye off the ball,” Schwank said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic made the opioid-driven overdose crisis worse, the state “didn’t have the situation under control” even before the pandemic.
Muth questioned the lack of data on successful treatment.
“You can’t say it’s working unless we are tracking it and showing the outcomes,” she said.
Tartaglione’s district includes Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood notorious for out-in-the-open drug selling and use.
Stigma, money issues
Others who testified included treatment center leaders and government agency officials, and they highlighted many friction points.
Larry Arata, Heather’s husband, said society stigmatizes those who struggle with drug abuse. Within that dynamic, he said, is a sub-stigmatization in which people who abstain from medicine in their treatment look down upon those who use medications such as methadone and suboxone as indulging in substitute “drugs.”
The CEO of the treatment center Self Help Movement in Philadelphia, Robert Dellavella, said treatment centers whose clients have private insurance get far bigger reimbursements per client than centers with Medicaid-covered clients, like his own.
“There is a lot of disparity between the two,” Dellavella said.
He said “we desperately need increased funding” to attract psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, and counselors to the industry.
Joseph Garbely, chief medical officer at the Caron Foundation of Berks County, said his organization believes in using medicine to assist treatment. While it has been known for its private-pay programs, he said, the foundation now treats people under agreements with insurance companies.
Berks County tragedy
Doug Nemeth of Berks County, whose 31-year-old son, Zachary Nemeth, died of a drug overdose in late September, testified that his son had been in treatment centers, halfway houses, sober homes and detox units all over the state and in Florida.
“Every single day I question myself what could I have done,” Nemeth said.
His son grew up loving various sports including fishing. He was one of five siblings, all of whom graduated from college.
But Zachary Nemeth fell into a substance abuse habit and spent some time in jail, his father said.
During his many attempts at treatment, his father said, “all of the facilities offered new hope.” But, he said, some of his son’s happiest moments during his substance abuse period were in jail, because “he had no temptations to take drugs.”
Doug Nemeth said he found Zachary face-down on the floor of his bedroom with a needle in his arm on Sept. 29.
“My wife and I had feared this for years, that it would be ending this way,” Doug Nemeth said.
Comparison data removed
The state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs removed the “comparison tool” portions of its website after The Morning Call revealed it showed incorrect numbers for treatment center violation totals.
The information was supposed to help guide people in assessing the quality of treatment centers.
On Monday, agency Secretary Jennifer Smith said a new online tool is expected to debut in 2022. It is being put together by the nonprofit Shatterproof, which has a contract with the state agency worth more than $1 million.
Smith stressed, though, that selecting the type of facility that is best for a person is “a clinical decision” that follows a formal clinical assessment.
Schwank in February reintroduced a bill to have treatment centers pay for their licenses. She indicated she was open to adding language that would let the state fine lawbreaking treatment centers. But the bill went nowhere in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Smith on Monday said her agency has been talking to the staff of Republican Sen. Mario Scavello of Monroe County, who in May circulated a memo seeking co-sponsors for a potential bill allowing fines for treatment providers.
Schwank recently unveiled a proposal that would require the state agency to distribute annual surveys to treatment centers. The answers would be published online.
Source: Berkshire mont