HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – A huge crowd filled the Capitol’s East Wing Rotunda. Several carried signs “Heroin Kills”. Others wore buttons “Keep DDAP”.
“You’re part of democracy in action. That’s what you are, democracy in action,” rally organizer Deb Beck told the crowd. She represents drug and alcohol service providers in Pennsylvania.
The assembled throng was one face of democracy.
A father with a photo of his son was another.
“Sage Anthony Capozzi,” the man said with a shaky voice while holding high the framed picture of a smiling high school graduate. “Twenty years old. I buried him March 5, 2012.”
Many in the crowd have personally battled addiction or know someone battling addiction. They came to the Capitol to battle a consolidation plan that would eliminate the stand-alone Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs and roll it into a much-larger Department of Health and Human Services.
State Rep. Eugene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) fought to create DDAP in 2010 to enhance services for addiction and recovery services. He doesn’t want to see its demise.
“What’s our message to the administration?” DiGirolamo shouted to the crowd and then he answered even louder. “Hell no, we won’t go. Hell no, we won’t go. Hell no, we won’t go.”
Gary Tennis was DDAP’s first secretary. He held the post for five years but was fired in late 2016 for refusing to accept Governor Tom Wolf’s consolidation plan. Tennis says DDAP’s too important to diminish. He gave several examples of its power including the push to put Narcan in the hands of police officers across the commonwealth. He says that’s saved the lives of 3,000 Pennsylvanians and counting.
“If you don’t have this department, those people are dead,” Tennis said forcefully. “This is a life and death matter.”
Wolf has been a champion for Narcan and addiction services. He insists recovery programs and addiction counseling will not be harmed under his consolidation plan. The secretaries of the affected agencies all agreed at a recent public hearing in the Senate.
“We can serve the consumer better. We can make it easier for providers to concentrate on providing those services. And we can save money,” Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said.
Pennsylvania is facing a $3 billion budget deficit. The Republican-dominated legislature has no stomach for tax increases, so consolidation is one of the few financial paths forward for the governor. It makes sense and saves cents. But many at the rally don’t care.
“What’s more important, money or life?” asked Lisa Hoffman, a drug counselor from Somerset County who made the trek to Harrisburg. “Ultimately, you cannot put a price on that.”
In a democracy, not everyone gets their way, but on Wednesday in the Rotunda, everyone got their say.
“This doesn’t stop today,” Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne) said. “It starts today, and they don’t know who they’re messing with.”
The governor cannot unilaterally force the consolidation. It requires legislative approval and will, no doubt, be lumped into the upcoming budget fight.