- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

The D.C. Department of Health is seeking to initiate a multimillion-dollar, federally funded voucher program that would allow city residents to choose where they receive drug and alcohol recovery treatment.

The Access to Recovery program, approved by Congress last year, would give residents vouchers to receive treatment at any facility that meets federal and city standards, including faith-based centers.

“The client would have a choice about which program they want,” said Robert L. Johnson, senior deputy director of substance-abuse services in the D.C. Department of Health. “The client has more power.”

Mr. Johnson said the Health Department is applying for funds through a $100 million federal grant included in President Bush’s voucher-based substance-abuse treatment proposal.

City health officials say the District could receive $15 million over three years through the program.

Officials say the fact that the city already has its own locally funded vouchers-based treatment system will boost the District’s chances of getting federal funding.

“The District is one of the few places in the country with a system already in place,” said Wendy Salaam, chief of policy for addiction, prevention and recovery administration in the Health Department.

“One advantage of this is that it creates a competitive environment among service providers, which increases the overall quality of treatment,” Miss Salaam said. “We’ve already had one year of implementing this.”

The D.C. Council passed the choice-in-drug-treatment legislation in 2000, but the city has had some difficulties running the program, according to Rob Fleming, publisher of Recovery Works, a newsletter for recovering substance abusers in the city.

“Sometimes they didn’t know how much money they had and payments have been slow in coming,” Mr. Fleming said. “Another problem was that when the [city] voucher program got set up, the council set aside $10 million and some of that money got diverted to other areas.”

Mr. Fleming said the District has a good chance of winning the federal grant because of the existing program. “We are better prepared to use the money than most places,” he said.

However, Mr. Fleming said federal officials should make sure that the city spends the voucher money on substance-abuse programs. “My concern is that the money goes through the chief executive’s offices, and I’m worried that they’ll say here’s this money for treatment from the federal government so therefore we can take money away from local sources,” he said.

Leah Young, a spokeswoman for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said the federal agency would award grants to states by Sept. 30.

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