WASHINGTON – Maryland officials plan to request federal funding for transitional housing for people in drug treatment, despite concerns that faith- based organizations will be able to compete for the money in the proposed White House program.
The state plans to begin talking to the federal government about securing a share of the money as quickly as possible, said Peter Luongo, director of Maryland’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
“What we would like to do in Maryland is get right up to the front of the line and start talking to the feds,” Luongo said. “We want to make sure they understand how interested we really are.”
The program, which was included in President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2004 budget, would dedicate $200 million a year for three years to set up state voucher systems to help fight drug addiction.
The plan still has to be approved by Congress, which could balk at the president’s inclusion of faith-based organizations among those who would be eligible for the vouchers. That element is a concern to some providers in Maryland as well.
“Almost without exception, faith-based programs are not held accountable because they often are not certified,” said Peter Beilenson, Baltimore City’s health commissioner. “I feel very uncomfortable giving out taxpayer dollars to programs that are not held accountable the way other programs are.”
Faith-based programs don’t track enough data to be evaluated properly, he said.
“Some faith-based programs in this city are excellent, some are mediocre, some are abysmal,” Beilenson said.
Ann Ciekot, a consultant with the Maryland chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, worried that faith-based organizations might exclude some who need treatment.
“In terms of the people being served, will people be denied service if they don’t participate in religious services?” she asked.
Luongo dismissed such worries as unfounded.
“I’ve not heard anybody talk about any lessening of requirements for practitioners or for licensing standards,” he said. “If you’re going to provide a health service, and substance-abuse treatment is a health service, you’re going to have to have certification.”
It is also hard to judge the role of faith in recovery at this time, said Erin Artigiani, deputy director at the Center for Substance Abuse Research.
“There has not been much research done,” said Artigiani, who noted that there could be unknown benefits to funding faith-based organizations.
“Faith-based organizations are often the one unifying resource in the community, and they offer a lot of stability and support to the residents,” she said.
Luongo said he would like to use the federal money in Maryland to house people undergoing intensive outpatient treatment, among other measures.
“It’s not treatment per se, but paired with an intensive outpatient program, we think it’s an effective mix,” he said.
The transitional housing system would be only one component of the plan, which is still under development.
“I don’t know how much money it will mean for Maryland yet,” Luongo said. But, he added, “I don’t have any doubt that they (the federal government) will think we’re on the right track.”
Despite her reservations, Ciekot is withholding final judgment until a final plan is in place.
“It’s a brand-new system,” she said. “It might not be bad to try it out and maybe expand it in the out years.”