Better drug treatment suggests turnaround

Baltimore: As effectiveness and availability increase, city's dismal health indicators improve.

September 17, 2001

THERE IS some good news in these dismal days: Baltimore's shockingly Third World-like health statistics have begun to improve.

Drug-related emergency room visits, which were the nation's highest, are down 19 percent.

Record-high infant mortality rates have dropped significantly. Tuberculosis rates, teen births and all types of venereal diseases also have decreased.

"Something different is going on in Baltimore," says Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson. He thinks the improving trend is due to more effective drug treatment.

He's probably right. Since 1997, funding for drug treatment in the city has soared from $17 million to $55 million. As slots for addicts have increased, the city has tightened its monitoring of treatment providers.

Dr. Beilenson and his staff now scrutinize the effectiveness of all 39 treatment providers in weekly meetings.

When one ineffective provider failed to correct its deficiencies after 12 weeks of warnings, its funding was canceled.

This review process is welcome. It has reaffirmed City Hall's control over Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, a quasi-public agency that contracts providers.

Two years ago, this newspaper ran a series of scathing editorials about BSAS's shortcomings, urging reforms that would make it more effective. New leadership, structural reforms and a tighter focus on benchmarks have transformed the agency.

Addiction to heroin, cocaine and alcohol remain huge problems in Baltimore City. But more effective treatment is believed to be among the factors that have contributed to a significant decline in homicides over the past 12 months.

Infant mortality, too, is directly linked to drug use. And Baltimore's syphilis infections, the highest in the nation four years ago, were a crack-for-sex epidemic.

Baltimore runs one of the nation's biggest taxpayer-funded treatment programs against addiction (San Francisco's is of equal size). Their success can only improve the city's chances for neighborhood and business turnarounds that are so long overdue.

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