OPED: Wolf's consolidation plan makes good sense

Sen. Judy Schwank
11th Senate District

New Directions Treatment Services is a nonprofit organization that provides addiction treatment and has two state-mandated licenses for programs it runs. It has a license from the Department of Human Services and from the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs for its psychiatric outpatient clinic and outpatient substance abuse programs, respectively. 

State Sen. Judy Schwank

Many people treated by New Directions in Bethlehem and Wyomissing are enrolled in both programs because mental health issues and addiction often go hand-in-hand. New Directions’ Executive Director Mairead Desmond recently told me patients who are dually enrolled in these programs have to sign releases allowing their providers to talk to one another.

The separation of the licenses, and programs, reinforces the belief in some that people affected by substance use disorders are at fault and not as deserving of empathy or treatment as people affected by other mental health disorders.

That’s why I have sponsored legislation to enact Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to unify the departments of Health, Human Services, Drug and Alcohol Programs and Aging into the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services.

As a state senator, it’s my job to focus on policies and initiatives that are best for my constituents. A unified system of health and human services will create a system that people will be able to enter easily and simply, regardless of the problem or their circumstances.

This potential unification comes at a time when our state, and our nation, faces a crippling opioid crisis. Individuals who suffer from the disease of addiction and their families will see a program that will be no less accountable or important than it is now. The Commissioner of Substance Use & Addiction will have direct access to the governor to keep this issue a priority.

Advocates wary of 'massive overhaul' planned for state services

Additionally, the average age of Pennsylvanians is growing, and with that comes the need for more services and more money to fund them. State revenue streams are not as stable as they once were, nor are they increasing fast enough to keep up with costs.

This means we must find a way to deliver services Pennsylvanians need with less funding. Services like home-delivered meals to help senior citizens avoid nursing homes or helping parents obtain childcare so they can work knowing their children are safe.

It’s critical these services are available in an efficient, easy-to-understand way.

Unification is a better path for the thousands of Pennsylvanians who rely on services from these separate agencies. That’s why I believe SB 746, and an identical proposal by Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland County, in the House (HB 1000), ensures services will continue to be available at the same or better quality as they are now, and will be delivered more effectively for recipients and taxpayers.

Instead of four traditional secretary positions, we would have four cabinet-level positions who each report to the governor: a commissioner on aging, a commissioner of Substance Use and Addiction, a physician general and a secretary of Health and Human Services.

We should not focus on titles, or the loss of them. Good leadership comes from the qualities of the individual. Certainly, there are pitfalls — it’s a bureaucracy. Things can go wrong. 

In the face of an elevating budget deficit, we must look for ways to make government work more efficiently. We have a right to expect better service, too.

A comprehensive website,, details what the Wolf administration has conceived as a unified agency's divisions, including primary functions and organizational charts. It also includes information about the drafted legislation to integrate the agencies.

I encourage everyone to visit the website to learn more about the unification plan and how making the wise choice to create one focused, integrated state agency to deliver all health and human services makes sense for Pennsylvania.

— State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, represents Pennsylvania's 11th District.