Alaska economy on drugs

Legislature slow to act on substance abuse's financial effects

Posted: Monday, March 06, 2006

Alcohol and drug abuse cost the Alaska economy an estimated $738 million during 2003, according to a report by the Governor’s Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

The “Economic Costs of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse in Alaska” report, released Tuesday, updates a 2001 version that chronicles the cost of abuse and dependency from lost productivity, criminal justice and protective services, health care, traffic accidents and public assistance, according to a Department of Health and Social Services press release.

Supporters of prevention and treatment programs within the Department of Health and Social Services are arguing for enhanced funding, but it isn’t clear the Legislature is ready to go along.

Angela Salerno, advocacy coordinator for the governor’s advisory board as well as the Alaska Mental Health Board, said department requests for increased funding in prevention, intervention and treatment programs are finding only limited legislative support, and funding for some worthwhile programs could be in jeopardy.

“The purpose of the study was to enhance public awareness of the impacts of drug and alcohol abuse,” she said Wednesday. “It was done in the hopes that the Legislature that controls funding for prevention and treatment will allow those budgets to grow. But that has not happened.”

Funding has grown slowly in recent years, which may be reflections of a philosophy opposed to increased spending and a sense of hopelessness — that abusers cannot really be helped, Salerno said.

“There seems to be a feeling in the Legislature that treatment does not work and therefore it is something they don’t want to fund. I want them to understand what’s at stake for Alaska,” she said.

Many funding requests would aim money at real problems and may well be supported by worthy arguments, but that doesn’t mean they all can be funded, said Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, co-chair of the House Finance Committee.

“While I agree, I can say that we can’t throw enough money at them to fix all of them,” he said.

Chenault said the Finance Committee is concerned about the upward spiral of the cost of government services. Gov. Frank Murkowski has asked for $751 million in general fund spending for health and social service programs — $143 million more than the fiscal year 2006-authorized general fund budget. Amendments to that request since it was delivered in December have increased the $751 million to $765.3 million.

While Chenault promised all the department’s programs, including new ones, would get fair hearings, the committee might look more favorably on new program spending if DHSS were cutting inefficient programs elsewhere.

“Everybody realizes we have a problem with drug and alcohol abuse in this state, but each year, we come up with a new program and never get rid of the old ones,” he said.

Among the requests submitted by the department is one seeking a $6 million increase in funding to go toward prevention programs aimed mostly at youth to combat substance abuse, teen pregnancy and suicide. There also was a request for $3 million specifically for other substance abuse prevention programs and a request for $500,000 to replace federal funding that is terminating in order to keep fetal alcohol diagnostic teams operating.

Salerno said the FAS diagnostic program was beginning to show real progress and it would be a shame to lose it now. Cutting that funding would be “very shortsighted,” Salerno said. But so far, that request appears to have little traction at the subcommittee level, she said.

There are a few promising legislative moves, Salerno said. Among them is a House bill which would replace jail time with mandatory, court-monitored treatment for nonviolent offenders charged with driving under the influence. The bill would expand the use of the state’s therapeutic courts, an alternative justice model that focuses on treatment programs instead of jail in which a court team (judges, attorneys, probation officers and treatment providers) oversee and monitor the progress of convicted offenders as they move through drug and alcohol treatment.

While any funding to come out of the Legislature this year — a year in which lawmakers will get to spend at least some of an estimated $1.2 billion oil revenue surplus — will be welcomed, Salerno admitted wanting “it all,” meaning all DHSS requests.

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