HARRISBURG — As state legislators seek to address the heroin and opioid overdose epidemic, support appears to be growing for the idea of forcing some drug abusers into treatment.
The Senate’s highest-ranking Democrat this month introduced legislation that, if enacted, would let family members petition to involuntarily commit a relative to treatment. In the House, the Republican chairman of the Health Committee says he is preparing a separate bill that would allow involuntary treatment of a drug user after an overdose.
The proposals reflect what some say is a wave of despair fueled by an opioid epidemic rippling across the state and country.
“I heard from a number of folks throughout the commonwealth,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), who "have expressed to me that they feel helpless at times trying to get treatment options for a loved one."
The numbers have been sobering: Drug-related overdose deaths in Pennsylvania spiked 23.4 percent, to 3,383, from 2014 to 2015, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. State officials are expecting the final tally for 2016 to be even higher.
Gov. Wolf has made battling the opioid epidemic a priority. He has asked the legislature for $10 million in the next fiscal budget to expand access to naloxone, the drug used to revive people from overdoses.
It’s not an issue divided along party lines.
“This is the first time I can recall in 25 years,” said Rep. Matt Baker (R., Tioga), the Health Committee chairman, "there seems to be a strong bipartisan level of support for some form of procedure by which individuals or families are able to pursue treatment for loved ones that need professional help."
Baker is building support for his own involuntary-commitment bill, although the details of how such a law would be implemented and enforced are evolving. Some critics have already emerged.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said it would oppose Costa’s bill, which would allow involuntary drug-treatment commitments after a petition from a spouse or relative, an evaluation by a physician, and a hearing.
Although drug and alcohol addiction are serious problems, ACLU spokesman Andy Hoover said, "we have concerns about this approach undermining people’s fundamental rights to liberty.”
He noted that the bill did not define what kind of “imminent danger” a person would have to be in to qualify for involuntary commitment and that it allowed for a single doctor to sign a statement determining that the person has an addiction.
David Hickton -- who as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania made opioids one of his top concerns and cochaired a national task force on heroin use -- said a balance must be struck.
“The opioid battle has shown that, many times, parents are frustrated trying to get help for their kids, especially people who are in the throes of opioid dependence where they are resistant to the help they need,” Hickton said. “It’s a balance, but there is no liberty and there is no freedom once you die of a drug overdose.”
Deb Beck of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania said that most people didn’t enter treatment without some kind of push, whether from family members, doctors, or employers.
“There’s no question that forced treatment can be effective,” Beck said. “The problem is we have no locked facilities in Pennsylvania, and frankly, we don’t have much bed space at this point.”
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Bucks County Republican and advocate for addicts and their families, said that the involuntary-commitment concept was a good idea but echoed that it would face a challenge in the lack of secured treatment facilities for drug and alcohol addiction.
DiGirolamo has firsthand experience with trying to persuade a loved one to get help. His son was a heroin user, he said.
“We finally convinced him, after a long struggle, to get into treatment,” DiGirolamo said. “He’s 17 years in recovery. I know how frustrating for families this can be.”