Pennsylvania spending millions of anti-opioid grant funds on advertising

Release time:  2019-02-23 author:   browse:  362


In the past two years, Pennsylvania has gotten more than $50 million in federal grants to fight the opioid crisis. Action News Investigates has learned one of the largest chunks of that money went to advertising.

Drug treatment centers throughout Pennsylvania have been desperate for money to help people who cannot afford it. But more than $4 million in federal anti-opioid funds has been spent not on treatment but on advertising.

Two years ago, Gov. Tom Wolf told legislators he was devoting millions of dollars to the opioid crisis.

“This epidemic has stolen the futures of far too many of our fellow Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said in his budget address.

Months later, the state got a $26 million anti-opioid grant from the federal government.

Action News Investigates obtained records showing the third-largest recipient of those funds was Harmelin Media, a Philadelphia ad agency.

The agency received $2.2 million to buy ad time for public service announcements. The agency declined to comment.

The money spent on PSAs was about the same as the $2.2 million given to Allegheny County for drug treatment. It was more than the $1.9 million total given to all other Western Pennsylvania counties.

Moreover, records show the money for ads in Pennsylvania was more than 12 states and the District of Columbia received from the federal government.

Action News Investigates asked Wolf about the ad spending.

“This is not, we're doing one thing at the expense of others. We're trying to do everything, and the PSAs are part of the overall effort,” Wolf said.

Jennifer Smith is secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Asked why so much has been spent on advertising, she said, "It really all comes back to, we hear time and time again that people don't know where to go to get treatment."

Smith said the hotline promoted in the PSAs has helped 17,000 people find treatment. Before the hotline was available, the only option the state offered for people seeking treatment was to call the drug and alcohol agency's Harrisburg office.

“We only work Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, so we were answering a lot of voicemails when we came in in the morning, and the reality is people who need treatment will often call at 2 o'clock in the morning, 3 o'clock in the morning,” Smith said.

Several key legislative leaders in Harrisburg told Action News Investigates they were shocked to hear that such a large portion of the opioid grant money was spent on advertising and not treatment.

“To me, it's questionable,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall Township. “I think it's probably an appropriate oversight committee investigation and hearing in terms of whether or not those were monies well spent.”

“I'm really shocked to hear that,” said state Sen. Kim Ward.

Ward represents Westmoreland County, which got just one-fifth of the amount spent on advertising.

“We would love to have another $500,000 or $600,000. It would go a long way to helping people and helping people is what that money was intended to do,” Ward said.

One Allegheny County group that has gotten federal money for treatment is Jade Wellness, of Wexford.

“I'm just grateful that we're able to get funding and treat people,” said Alex Perla, admissions direct