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Oversight of Pa. recovery homes stalls as officials, advocates disagree on best approach

The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs initially released a draft of the proposal in May 2019, and received more than 60 letters and emails in response. Many of those comments came from people concerned about the costs and burden of it, according to a review of the submissions, which the department provided to Spotlight PA after a Right-to-Know request.

The amount of feedback, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, contributed to the agency missing a June 2020 deadline to implement the licensing program, Secretary Jennifer Smith said during a February budget hearing.

“I appreciate the frustration I hear in your voice,” Smith told State Rep. Meghan Schroeder (R., Bucks). “And I think we as the department have experienced some of that frustration, too.”

The department released a new proposal in March, noting that Pennsylvania has one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the country and that people with substance use disorders are more likely to overdose without adequate support. The department said there are an unknown number of recovery homes “providing low-quality to no supportive services, committing insurance fraud, and exploiting vulnerable populations.”

The licensing program would be voluntary, but there are incentives. The 2017 law prohibits state agencies and state-funded facilities from referring people to unlicensed homes, and only licensed facilities can receive federal or state money for recovery housing services. Licensed homes will also receive priority for referrals when someone is under court supervision.

The department estimated 500 recovery houses would seek a license.

Bucks County commissioners, the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, and others objected. In an April 1 response, the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs pushed back against some criticisms, clarified its position to address others, and said it was willing to compromise on some issues. It will consider exceptions to the annual audit requirement, based on how much revenue houses receive, officials said in the response. The agency is also working on a plan to provide grants to help pay for brick-and-mortar upgrades.

But objections continued. Fred Way, executive director of the Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences, wrote it was “incredibly hard to believe” that 500 homes could afford the costs associated with a license.

Donald Driscoll, an attorney for the Community Justice Project, a legal assistance nonprofit, said the language in the proposed regulations and the administrative burdens would encourage municipal leaders to challenge the existence of these recovery homes. That will lead to more zoning hearings, citation cases before magisterial district judges, as well as “critical time delays and extraordinary legal expenses,” Driscoll wrote.

On April 9, the department announced it was withdrawing the proposal, so it could “thoroughly review these concerns.” It’s preparing to resubmit a plan in time for a June meeting of the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. And the department is preparing to enforce the licensing system by December, a goal the department laid out earlier this year.

Patrick Harvey, a managing partner at Pittsburgh Sober Living, which operates eight men’s recovery houses, is glad the department pulled its latest proposal. But he’s still nervous.

“We look at it as, we won the battle, but we didn’t win the war,” he said.

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