Joining forces to fight drugs, mental illness

Merger: As planning for agency consolidation begins, mayor must ensure funding will not suffer.

September 20, 2000

BALTIMORE COULD be the loser if the O'Malley administration doesn't fast-track plans to merge the city's drug treatment and mental health agencies. Without action, the city will be handicapped in arguing for more treatment funds for some 60,000 drug addicts and thousands of others afflicted by mental disorders.

Mayor Martin O'Malley should immediately commit to the merger, which was recommended by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable. Right now, things are drifting. A merger is widely anticipated -- but no decision has been made.

Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson has appointed a committee to study consolidation of the Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems and Baltimore Mental Health Systems. The group will report by April 1 -- long after critical funding decisions for the next budget year have been made by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly.

Similarly, that merger report will come about three months after Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's task force is expected to make recommendations about reshaping statewide drug treatment strategies.

The mayor should have learned from this year's legislative session, his first as mayor. Getting more money for drug treatment was a top priority; the governor, however, remained unconvinced, expressing a lack of confidence in the city's Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems.

Mr. O'Malley has pledged to make drug treatment his priority again when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. But with BSAS on its way out of existence, the governor and legislators will ask -- with justification -- why pour big money into a lameduck agency?

The departure of Andrea M. Amprey, BSAS' long-time president, adds to the impression Baltimore's drug treatment efforts are in limbo. BSAS supporters may argue that's false and that the agency is working better to help the estimated 60,000 addicts.

Such protests, though, count for very little in Annapolis. In his dealings with Governor Glendening and the General Assembly, Mayor O'Malley must be able to argue the case for more drug treatment money with facts, figures and concrete plans.

That's why he must work to initiate the treatment agencies' merger as soon as possible.

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