Mental health, drug addiction services top first responders’ needs
Van Hollen, Hoyer host public safety discussion in Hughesville
Easy access to opioids and a lack of services for mental health and substance abuse treatment are key concerns of Southern Maryland’s law enforcement departments, emergency medical services and faith leaders, according to a forum held last week at the College of Southern Maryland’s Hughesville campus.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) convened the forum at the new Center for Trades and Energy Training facility to hear from first responders, pastors and local elected officials about their concerns and to share the latest information about federal funding for emergency medical programs.
CSM president Maureen Murphy and CSM Foundation Director Emeritus Steve Proctor moderated the 90-minute discussion.
Hoyer said that even though the federal High Intensity Drug Traffick-
ing Area program has led to the successful seizure of many illegal drugs that had been coming through Baltimore, such preventive measures need to be matched with interdiction and treatment programs at the local level to ensure success.
“HIDTA tries to coordinate efforts so that we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Hoyer explained.
Attendees agreed that there was a need for more resources to treat mental health issues in Southern Maryland, including more hospital beds and clinical therapists.
Van Hollen explained that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that includes a waiver that allows Medicaid patients to access beds in private hospitals when there isn’t enough room in local public hospitals.
The Senate version of the bill does not include that waiver, but Van Hollen said he hoped that would be reconciled in a future version.
Van Hollen said that Congress has passed a “major piece of legislation” that includes $200 million for health centers to launch or improve their mental health, substance abuse and behavioral health programs.
Federal funds will also be available for the establishment of community behavioral health centers through the legislation, Van Hollen said.
Hoyer explained that the Charles County HITDA program was the first in the state to include addiction treatment in addition to the standard law-enforcement components.
“It doesn’t really help unless you treat the underlying cause of [a person’s] interaction with law enforcement,” Hoyer said. “Treatment is expensive, but it’s less expensive than taking people out of the community and locking them up.”
Another concern raised was identity theft, particularly among the region’s elderly, which is on the rise as a method of getting money to purchase illegal drugs.
Participants agreed that addiction treatment programs need to be able to address more than just opioid addiction, particularly alcohol.
“We tend to focus too tightly on opioids,” said Shawn Davidson, the chief of the Lexington Park Volunteer Rescue Squad. “Yes, every house has opioids whether they realize it or not, but the bigger thing is something that we leave out of the picture.”
Van Hollen agreed, adding that what makes opioid addiction particularly insidious is that many people become addicted through prescription medications following surgery.
“Obviously you need pain control, but there’s a balance here,” Van Hollen said. “We need to take a broad approach and also zero in on that part of it.”
As a way to help prevent addiction, Chesapeake Beach Mayor Pat Mahoney stressed the importance of parents setting good examples for their children, who are more likely to emulate their behaviors.
Hoyer said that the profitability of prescription drugs like fentanyl makes it difficult to eliminate access to opioids through prescriptions.
“America is a pill-taking nation,” Hoyer said. “It’s easy for me to pop a Benadryl when I start sneezing.”
Hoyer said that the issue as he saw it was that Congress does not regulate the costs of prescription medicines.
The issue is also complicated by the fact that modern health care is driven by patient satisfaction, which means that a patient who does not get the pain medication he or she wants is more likely to rate a doctor lower on customer satisfaction surveys, which in turn can lead to a variety of financial penalties.
Hoyer noted that there will be less federal funding available for local health care programs as a result of the recently passed income tax cuts that will reduce federal revenues by $2 trillion over the next decade.
The challenge, Hoyer said, is recognizing that cutting funding to one program can have ripple effects that affect others.
“We have to really come to grips not just with the opioid crisis, but with other issues too,” Hoyer said. “When kids say that they’re afraid to go to school, we’ve got to do something about that.”
“What you pay for is what you think it is worth,” Hoyer said. “I’m sure you’ve all heard that sermon.”
Above left, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) discusses federal funding available to local first responders during a forum on public safety at the College of Southern Maryland’s Center for Trades and Energy Training campus in Hughesville last Wednesday. Above right, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) talks about federal efforts to improve public health and safety during a forum for first responders and community leaders in Hughesville last week.