Filling the treatment gap

January 16, 2007

There's a worthy effort in Annapolis to increase money for substance-abuse treatment around the state, using funds from the proposed $1 increase in the cigarette tax. A proposal that will be considered by the General Assembly would dedicate as much as $30 million a year to fighting drug and alcohol abuse - about half going to Baltimore - a desirable change from the yearly catch-as-catch-can funding that treatment typically receives.

It's another good reason, in addition to providing more money for health insurance, to support the cigarette tax increase.

Addiction, particularly to drugs and alcohol, is one of the state's major health challenges, and treatment can be very effective. A 1999 study by Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., which oversees funding and support for the city's drug treatment providers, showed reductions in heroin, cocaine and alcohol use after 30 days and after a year of treatment.

The study also showed reductions in crime and increases in earned income among treatment participants.

But money for treatment has been relatively stagnant during the last four years. In effect, that has amounted to cutbacks because treatment providers have often had to reduce staff or patient slots in order to make do with available dollars.

Designating a specific amount of money for treatment would be a dramatic and welcome change. Coordinating councils in each county have been assessing local needs and determining how to spend drug and alcohol abuse money - from prevention efforts to residential treatment.

Although the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration is spending about $130 million for treatment services statewide, more than $18 million in additional priority requests could not be funded this fiscal year. A dedicated fund that would add about $30 million for treatment services around the state would help address immediate and long-term needs.

Similarly, spending $15 million of the designated money in Baltimore, which has the state's largest addicted population, would expand capacity of existing services and create new services. About 23,000 addicts were helped in the city in fiscal year 2005, perhaps half of those in need.

The additional money won't get the city, or the state, to treatment on demand, but it will certainly help more addicts kick the habit - and that would be money well spent.

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