Despite clear knowledge of a heroin epidemic in Pennsylvania, state lawmakers have for years given the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) few state funds.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget shows that he wants to change that, nearly doubling the funds allocated for general operations (check our January story for the full rundown).

Pennsylvania has an estimated 40,000 heroin users. It ranks third nationally in heroin addiction.

Last year, the department got $628,000 in operating funds. Now Wolf wants to give it about $1.12 million, roughly a 78 percent increase.

On top of these funds, Wolf wants to spend $5 million more in state funds for local drug treatment. County treatment agencies, which DDAP oversees, routinely run out of money. This means they are unable to treat drug addicts when they are asking for help.

Experts say the window of opportunity to get heroin users to treatment is very small. If they’re ready one day and can’t get in, they tend to go back to the drugs they’re craving, almost immediately.

Last year, state assistance to local programs totaled $41.2 million. Wolf wants to increase that to $46.2 million.

As PublicSource reported in January, creating a stand-alone department was estimated to cost $2.1 million in state funds.

But in 2012, its first year, lawmakers gave it only $466,000 for general operations. That’s less than a quarter of the estimate from the House Committee on Appropriations.

For contrast, the state spends roughly $5.3 billion annually on the collateral costs of drug addiction.

The measly budget meant the department couldn’t hire the additional staff it needed (it was previously a bureau with 76 employees).

Instead of 22 new employees, the department got three. Employees who transferred over from the bureau were asked to do more, and the state gave them little to do it with. These employees were paid mostly using federal funds.

Staffing shortages meant the department needed help from universities, another state agency and others to complete grant applications. This help meant the department has received additional federal funding.

But Kim Bowman, the department’s former deputy secretary, said DDAP could have asked for additional grant money if it had the staff to do the time-consuming applications.

In other words, it lacked the resources to even effectively ask for more resources.

At the beginning of 2015, DDAP had 15 vacancies.

Wolf’s budget shows that he thinks fighting the state’s heroin epidemic is worthy of state money.

But the budget has a long, long road ahead before it’s signed into law. Republican leadership bristled at Wolf’s proposed new taxes and spending across the government. The state’s budget deficit is projected at $2.3 billion.

While Wolf and former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, have clearly different approaches to government, they do agree on one thing.

In January, Wolf announced that he’d keep Gary Tennis, Corbett’s DDAP secretary, to coordinate the state’s approach to the heroin crisis.

Tennis, a former prosecutor, has been widely praised for his leadership and making the most of the few resources he has.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

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Jeff has been serving as assistant editor for PublicSource since October 2018, helping to guide coverage across the newsroom and overseeing economic development coverage for Develop PGH. Jeff previously...