The Lead

Philadelphia mayoral candidates discuss public health crises

By: - April 8, 2023 6:30 am
Philly Mayoral forum on public health issues

Philadelphia’s mayoral candidates discuss the public health challenges facing the city (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Marco Cerino

PHILADELPHIA — Seven of the city’s mayoral candidates discussed their solutions for Philadelphia linked crises of gun violence, substance use and behavioral health, offering more concrete solutions this week in these areas than in some previous forums.

“We’re looking at what is a pretty critical period in Philadelphia in our time,” said Mike Pearson, the vice chair for Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC), who started the forum. “We have a very important election and we thought, PHMC, like many other public agencies, is concerned.”

PHMC is a nonprofit health institute that provides outreach, education, research, planning, and direct services.

The moderators mentioned that the rates of juvenile victims of gun violence has tripled from 2015 to 2021. Emergency room professionals often see youths come back to their hospitals after multiple incidents, sometimes unable to save them. The increase in shootings has been tied to the use and abuse of drugs and poor or inadequate care for behavioral health. Some people abusing illegal and legal drugs are often self-medicating to treat their behavioral and mental health issues.

The forum, held Tuesday, gave candidates more time to answer questions and the specific nature of the topics allowed for more detailed answers. By splitting the candidates into two groups, PHMC allowed for the opportunity to respond to a previous answer, building on an idea or possibly refuting another’s statement.

Most questions yielded consensus in support or acknowledgement of the various problems. However, there were some different approaches to solving aspects of these crises.

When asked about bringing together the various groups attempting to provide solutions to gun violence, Helen Gym insisted that victims of violence often leave hospitals or other institutional touch points “in different states of distress,” without needs-based assessments or plans to provide care for the ongoing physical and, often more important, psychological trauma that comes with the process of recovery.

Jeff Brown said he wants to see more early intervention from community organizations to divert those in crisis who may become a victim or assailant.

“Let’s build a comprehensive early detection system that we work together on, collaborate with each other, and get people the help when it costs a lot less and where there will be very little harm to the person in the process,” he said.

When discussing how to address the rampant drug use and sales in Kensington, former Councilmember Allan Domb made a minor confession and major acknowledgement.

First, he told those gathered “I’m never the smartest person in the room.” He then explained he made a call to then-Gov. Tom Wolf in January 2022 to ask for FEMA aid to declare the Kensington encampments a disaster area and access federal relief.

The governor asked for a resolution from City Council and a call from Mayor Jim Kenney. Council passed the nonbinding resolution in April but Kenney never got on the phone. While a spokesperson from the mayor’s office was unable to verify or refute Domb’s story at time of publication, a former communications aide to Wolf did recall the initial conversation with the Council member.

Domb later said the city’s share of the opioid lawsuit settlement, a reported $200 million paid out over 18 years or just over $5 million a year, isn’t that much money. He said that opening a special services district along Kensington Avenue, which has become the epicenter of the epidemic, with those funds.

The topic of behavioral health, which consumes over a billion dollars in annual spending, brought the most divergence of opinions. Mayoral candidate Derek Green explained the difficulty of trying to find a consensus for care, referring to the different doctors and professionals he engaged while helping his son, who is on the autism spectrum, through school, and the loss of that support when children graduate or age out of certain services.

Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said the bulk of money spent doesn’t directly assist those in need, but could not provide a specific example of a failing program or something she would like to change.

David Oh, the lone Republican in the group, called for the city to do better with other services like education, jobs, and support for victims. He also demanded schools remove bullies who physically assault other students, noting that victims returning to those settings with their attackers compounds the trauma and leads to new problems.

Individual questions also yielded some intriguing answers. When asked about support for supervised injection sites, Gym responded that she supports “harm reduction” like she saw in Canada and elsewhere. However, she said there must be “buy-in” from the community that will host these facilities and be part of a comprehensive approach.

Jeff Brown, an opponent to the soda tax in 2019, reinforced his refusal to call for the repeal, citing an upcoming $250 million shortfall in Philadelphia’s budget when COVID-19 stimulus and related funds expire. He did acknowledge “we tax the poor a lot in the city” and does appreciate the programs supported, like universal pre-K.

With less than six weeks to go until the primary election on May 16, it appears unlikely the field will shrink drastically. Voters will have more opportunities to hear from the candidates as the series of forums continue.

Marco Cerino is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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