Pennsylvania's New Addiction Dept Holds Promise

By Jennifer Matesa 01/30/12

The architects of Pennsylvania's drug and alcohol department tell The Fix why it offers new hope.

Gene DiGirolamo successfully pushed for
the new department.
Photo via

Advocates for better drug and alcohol treatment in Pennsylvania welcomed the decision of Gov. Tom Corbett last week to nominate Philadelphia attorney Gary Tennis as secretary of the state’s new Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, launched as a result of the passage of a 2010 law. Tennis is former chief of the legislation unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and served as executive director of President Clinton’s Commission on Model State Drug Laws in 1993. “Gary Tennis knows an awful lot about addiction,” Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) tells The Fix. DiGirolamo was the 2010 law’s primary sponsor; he has a 36-year-old son with 11 years in recovery. “This was our main goal, creating a cabinet-level position,” he says. Federal law requires every state to have a single authority on drug and alcohol treatment. But until now Pennsylvania’s drug-and-alcohol treatment bureau was “buried in the department of health,” as he puts it.

Deb Beck—who is president of the Drug and Alcohol Services Providers of Pennsylvania, and worked with DiGirolamo on the bill—says addiction reaches into one in four families in the state, and that the new department will streamline efforts to organize treatment systems and guide those seeking treatment. It should save money, too, by keeping people out of the criminal justice system and bringing them into treatment. “I also expect there’ll be a lot of tightening up throughout the state,” Beck tells us. For example, the state’s DUI law is administered by the state department of transportation, “but the quality-control piece on the treatment will now be coordinated out of this new agency,” she explains. “They’ll pull everything together and coordinate—to make sure every entity of government is using the best treatment, from the bureau of corrections, to county corrections, to the department of transportation, and they’ll focus on getting the best prevention programs in the schools.” In the 2010 vote on the law, just three out of 203 house members opposed, Beck notes. "That's kind of unusual for something like this, considering the stigma against addiction."

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.