Plan to repeal and replace Affordable Care Act means bad news for low income suffering addiction, mental health issues

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald talks with U.S. Senator Bob Casey and Ross resident Michelle Schwartzmier after the conference.

Senator Casey speaks with the media.

U.S. Senator Bob Casey speaks with the media following the conference at Ryan Arts and Cultural Center.

By Sonja Reis | MRCDC

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) was in McKees Rocks this week to discuss the Graham-Cassidy bill, the latest attempt by Senate Republican members to undermine health care protections provided in the Obama-era Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Casey was joined by a suburban mother who lost a daughter to opioid addiction and county officials who discussed how GOP plans to next week vote to repeal and replace the current ACA would be detrimental. These adverse changes are undesirable in the midst of the opioid crisis being faced by so many not just in the McKees Rocks area but on the state and national levels.

It’s not just “bad for Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and Southwest Pennsylvania, it’s also bad for our state and our country,” says Sen. Casey, who refers to the bill as a “snake in the grass” maneuver.

If passed, the bill would eliminate a requirement that most people buy health insurance and that larger employers make it available to workers. Additionally, the replacement bill would incrementally cut the health insurance program for low-income households known as Medicaid and allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums to those gravely ill.  

In Allegheny County alone, more than 58,000 receive insurance under the Medicaid expansion provided in the ACA.

Cutting Medicaid would “wipe out the opportunity,” says Sen. Casey, for us to provide mental health and addiction-related services to the most vulnerable of populations.

Here in McKees Rocks, the Sto-Rox Community Resource Center which opened in June was created in direct response to the region’s large mental health population. Operated under the umbrella of Focus On Renewal, the center already provides services to more than 120 members through a variety of partnerships and is developing tangible solutions to reduce overdose deaths and opioid addiction in the Sto-Rox Communities.

Prior to the conference, Sen. Casey toured the center and spoke with the Opiates Task Force from the Mental Health Provider’s Network.

The Opiate Task Force is comprised of community stakeholders who meet monthly to work toward a local solution to the opioid epidemic. This committee is newer and is a subgroup of the large Mental Health Provider’s Network that resulted in the Community Resource Center.

“All our communities that are impacted are really coming together, I know here in [McKees Rocks] there’s been a lot of activity going on,” says Dr. Karen Hacker, Allegheny County Health Department Director.  

“We don’t have the answers, but I can definitely say that if we don’t have the insurance coverage we will be much further back than we are right now. This is the foundation of being able to get our hands around this epidemic. If people cannot get access to treatment which is already a challenge, imagine what we might see next year or the year after,” says Hacker.

In 2016 there were more than 600 overdose-related deaths in the county, according to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Statewide, more than 4,500 died of an overdose in 2016, with a majority of those deaths opioid-related.

During the Thursday conference, Michelle Schwartzmier of Ross Township shared the story of her 20-year-old daughter Casey who had died of a heroin overdose the night before scheduled to enter a rehabilitation facility. An earlier date to enter rehab had been canceled because of insurance issues, says Schwartzmier, who indicated someone with better insurance had been provided the bed instead.

By the time Schwartzmier finished sharing her daughter’s addiction story and the viral nature of the honest obituary written to fulfill a mother-daughter promise there were few dry eyes left in the auditorium of the Ryan Arts and Culture Center where the conference was called.

“When an addict is ready for help there should be no barriers, not even one day,” says Schwartzmier. “…we need to count more people in recovery than there are in the morgue.”

For those curious about learning more locally, Mental Health Providers Network meetings are held at 8:30 a.m. on the first Thursday of the month at the Ryan Arts and Culture Center, 420 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks. The Opiates Task Force meets at 8:30 a.m. on third Thursdays at the lower level of the Community Resource Center, 500 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks.