County retooling drug treatment focus

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PACIFICA — On any given day, George Torney and his staff treat dozens of alcoholics and drug addicts, some shaking and paranoid, some suicidal, but even at 1,000 cases a week they are barely scratching the surface.

As executive director of the Pyramid alcohol and drug treatment program, which offers treatment classes throughout the north county, Torney runs just one of many organizations hired by the county that find themselves drowning for a lack of resources and unable to treat four out of every five patients who otherwise qualify for publicly funded treatment.

A new proposal, however, by the county Substance Abuse and Shelter Services division hopes to stem the tide and expand treatment, said Stephen Kaplan, substance abuse and shelter services director. Experts plan to target families, adolescents, the homeless and inmates with the goal of tempering the county’s overwhelming alcohol and drug treatment needs, if not solving it.

By focusing on alcohol and drug treatment for low-income families — especially those with kids — adolescents, the homeless and inmates experts hope they can create a ripple effect, preventing future generations from getting involved in drugs, easy dependence on the child welfare program, reduce emergency room costs and alleviate court backlogs, Kaplan said. Targeting these groups could add as many as 11,000 people, Kaplan said.

The targeted treatment plan, outlined in the county Human Services Agency Strategic Directions 2010 plan, could save county taxpayer boatloads, according to Kaplan. One addict cost taxpayers between $30,000 and $50,000 in hospital, court, unemployment, and welfare costs over their lifetime, according to Kaplan. That equates to $480 million for the 20,000 estimated in San Mateo County.

“Several studies have shown that for every $1 spent on treatment the return is $7 to $10 in savings in taxpayer dollars,” Kaplan said.

As many as 57,000 residents are estimated to need alcohol or drug treatment in the county, with 20,000 being low-income and qualifying for public assistance. The county’s treatment and prevention budget, of almost $16 million a year, currently pays to treat just 4,000, Kaplan said.

“With the level of expenditure [the county] can make at the moment, we won’t solve the problem,” said Supervisor Rich Gordon, who sits on a subcommittee dealing with alcohol and drug treatment.

Torney called the plan a good beginning but said it needs to continue to be expanded. “I’m very hopeful,” he said. “What the county has done is set things in motion.”

The strategic plan, if approved by supervisors at their meeting Nov. 7, will work in conjunction with the county’s Roadmap for Alcohol, tobacco and Other Drug Prevention guide released in June, officials said. That report laid out so-called best practices for addressing alcohol and drug use among families and adolescents in order to prevent addiction.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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