Question topics varied from invasive flies to senior housing to gas drilling to the opioid crisis. A panel of Pennsylvania department secretaries were on hand Feb. 1 at the Wallenpaupack Area High School auditorium to hear what was on the minds of the public.

LAKE REGION - Question topics varied from invasive flies to senior housing to gas drilling to the opioid crisis. A panel of Pennsylvania department secretaries were on hand Feb. 1 at the Wallenpaupack Area High School auditorium to hear what was on the minds of the public.

Turnout was in the hundreds, including high school students from Wallenpaupack, Western Wayne and Wayne Highlands, local officials and numerous area residents. This was the third of 36 planned “Cabinet in Your Community” forums being held statewide, promoted by Governor Wolf as a means to make government more accessible.

On the panel were Russell Redding, Department of Agriculture; Teresa Osborne, Department of Aging; Patrick McDonnell, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Dr. Rachel Levine, Department of Health.

Here’s a roundup of several of the questions poised, and summary of responses provided.

AGING

Jean Pritchard, Wayne Highlands: How do you plan to expand the availability of affordable senior housing?

Sec. Osborne said they are are working on several pilots to ensure seniors can get affordable housing more quickly and in creative ways. Pike County, for example, has started the Shared Housing program. She said they work together with the Department of Human Services but they must do a better job to talk to developers, further the application process, etc.

* A woman noted that the courts are often faced with petitions to incapacitate elders. They become a ward of the state. Family members are often not taken into account.
Sec. Osborne replied that PA Guardianship Law does fall under the Orphans Court. The PA Supreme Court in 2014 issued a report specifically calling for an Elder Justice Task Force. This morphed into an Elder Justice Advisory Council, which works with the Supreme Court. The Department of Aging sits on the council. Aging is working to see how to better support family members that serve as guardians to ensure else citizens are protected.

Mary Ursich, Wayne County Area Agency on Aging, asked about provider availability in rural areas and other topics.

Sec. Osborne: Since April 2016, Aging’s collaboration with Human Services to implement an independent enrollment broker was not as successful as they would have liked. Access to services and provider reimbursement and provider development continues to be examined. She urged purchase of PA Lottery tickets to help fund senior citizen programs. “They make awesome Valentine’s Day presents,” she added.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

Davis R. Chant, chairman and founder of Davis R. Chant Realtors, asked what can be done to speed the permitting process for development. People from the Hudson Valley and Orange County, NY, visit the PA side, along the I-84 corridor, looking for commercial properties. “We are getting people who are coming over and finding it takes a year or two years to get a permit to develop a 100,000 square foot building…,” Chant said. A way is needed for the townships, counties, PennDOT and DEP work together on this. “There are tremendous job opportunities, tremendous ways to bring tax rate-ables to our area along the I-84 corridor, but we’re missing it,” he said, when prospects back out when they hear it tales so long to get a permit.”

Sec. McConnell: DEP has lost resources over the last decade. “But we’ve managed the empty chairs more than we have managed the filled chairs in the department.” To improve the permitting processes, DEP is focusing on internal training and ensure we have the right technologies. They are seeing benefits from electronic permitting. DEP is working with PennDOT to try and improve processes across the board.

* Seth Brown, Wallenpaupack Area High School: How is President Trump’s pro-coal initiative affect our state’s declining coal industry and how does that impact our state’s environmental status?

Sec. McConnell: We haven’t seen a great impact yet. The price of natural gas is driving price of all other fuels. “I still see coal as struggling against some of the economic realties of what is going in the market place,” he said.

State Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-111th) raised the topic of natural gas: the reduction of CO-2 levels, the Delaware River Basin Commission’s draft ruling prohibiting gas drilling/fracking in Wayne and Pike, and whether the industry can be seen as both beneficial while protecting the environment.

Sec. Levine: Gov. Wolf believes we can extract the resource in an environmentally responsible way. DEP is working to reduce the backlog of permitting oil and gas operations. DRBC is seeking public comment on draft regulations supporting the moratorium. “The Governor has been supportive of a moratorium within the Delaware River Basin on drilling… as has been in place he lats decade,” he said. A number of new plants in Pennsylvania are utilizing natural gas. Formally about 5% of fuel mix was natural gas; now it is close to one third.

HEALTH

Ryan Jennings, The Cooperage Project, asked if HIV prevention part of the opioid conversation, particularly in rural areas?

Sec. Levine: Infectious diseases, including both HIV and Hepatitis C are very much part of the conversation. There is an active HIV prevention and treatment program and they are working on Hepatitis C as well.

Pike County Commissioner Matthew Osterberg said that many issues concerning tick borne diseases are not being addressed, although Pike is doing so on a county level (through the county task force). He also asked when the position of County Nurse would be restored in Pike, noting the value of having a liaison between the county and the Department of Health. Sec. Levine: Tick borne illnesses is a very important topic; Senator Lisa Baker held a hearing on this a few months ago. “We are cautiously optimistic for funding to be able ti implement some of the measures… in terms of prevention, surveillance and education,” she said. Dr. Levine added she will have staff get back to the commissioner about the status of the County Nurse. Gary D. Linton, Director, Wayne Pike Adult Literacy asked that adult literacy be viewed as applicable to the opioid crisis. He noted that 14-22% of Pennsylvanians are below literacy standards, or between 1 million and 2 million people. The socio-economic problems that are a part of illiteracy are also often part of the opioid crisis. There are people who cannot read the prescription bottle label or rules and regulations. He asked that the Governor funnel money to assist adult literacy.

Sec. Levine: We will pleased to bring this to the Governor and sister agencies. Areas where people have socioeconomic disadvantage are much more prone to have chronic pain and be more dependent on drugs.

Sec. Osborne: The Department of Aging also recognizes the problem of illiteracy. They are open to suggestions on how the state can better address the issue.

A question was asked if the Wolf Administration would view the housing crisis a public health issue almost to the same degree as the opioid epidemic.

Sec. Levine: Where the opioid problem has been largest is where there has also been a lack of housing and economic opportunity. Department of Health works with the Department of Human Services on their housing programs.

Pike County Commissioner Steve Guccini noted the Governor as well as the President have made emergency declarations of the opioid crisis. What we really need, he said, are quite, behind the scene meetings with appropriate agencies and “people on the ground” and realize how the crisis is impacting the local area.

Sec. Levine: Under the Declaration, the general response focuses on prevention. They also have to address “rescue” which involves making Naloxone medication available, used to intervene in heroin overdoses. In 2015 she issued two standing orders for prescriptions of Naloxone for First Responders as well as the public. Police have so far saved about 6,000 lives using Nalaxone.

A referral for treatment is also being addressed. Six regional meetings will be held to work with hospitals and single county authorities to regulate substance abuse treatment in the counties.

Agreeing with Guccini, Dr. Levine said that Medicaid expansion is one of the most important actions taken Gov. Wolf. This has allowed over 700,000 people to access quality healthcare, including 120,000 that have accessed substance abuse treatment.

A woman from Lakeville asked if the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) was successfully repealed, is there any plan to address the needs of Pennsylvanians in regards to their health insurance.

Dr. Levine: “We are hopeful and committed to hoping that the Administration and Congress do not repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act,” she said. The ACA, she added, has many initiatives essential to helping Pennsylvanians. Many aspects of the ACA are embedded in the state’s healthcare system. This include Public Health. The ACA embedded most of the public funding that goes to the CDC which goes to the states. A rollback of the ACA, she said, would have led to a significant loss of public health funding on the state level. Some impacts would include curtailing surveillance of HIV, influenza, Zika virus or Lyme disease. She said she is sure the Administration would respond if ACA were repealed.

AGRICULTURE

Mary Beth Wood, Director of WEDCO: The Wolf Administration, through Executive Order 221512, desires to see food alliances in every county by 2020. Wayne County has adopted one. What examples show it is working well?

Sec. Redding: The order came out of issues of access to food, not just for those who need it but how to coordinate different agencies. The food alliance concept is very active in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The goal is to have by county or regions, development of an alliance to look at food access for everyone, while addressing charitable food systems, economic opportunities, market development, farm to school etc.  A statewide food policy council is needed to help coordinate the alliances.

A female student in the Honesdale High School Ag class, asked what would be done about taking advantage of new technologies in the fields of agriculture.

Sec. Redding: They are finding that the workforce to address requisite technologies is lacking. The public is also slow in accepting technology applied to their food. “We have been on the path of change in agriculture for over 200 years,” he said. “That’s why we’re here, that’s why we do what we do.”  The establishment of an ag science program in Honesdale is a great example of the response to both the need of the food system and opportunities, he added.

Brian Smith, Wayne County Commissioner as well as a daily farmer, asked about the threat of an invasive species, the Spotted Lanternfly that has invaded southeastern Pennsylvania in what has been described as a “Biblical event” in Berks County.

Sec. Redding: The Spotted Lanternfly is native to South Korea. About three years ago it appears to have been introduced on a palette of stone at the port in Philadelphia. In 2017 the pest “exploded” in numbers. The pest has wide range of tastes, including hardwood, fruits and vegetables. It is found in 13 counties, and is “next door to Monroe County.” There is no labeled product sold to combat it at this time. The state, with the USDA, is working on containing the pest from spreading. He called it a major problem to quality of life and the economy. It has been found in spots in New Jersey, New York and Virginia.

A man from Shohola asked about the dangers of Roundup weed control, which in California has been labeled as causing cancer.

Sec. Redding: Pennsylvania follows federal guidance regarding testing of pesticides/herbicides. California went beyond that.