If Pennsylvania’s government is in a war with the epidemic of opioid overdoses, then two state cabinet members’ visit Tuesday to Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services’ facility in Monessen bears comparison to generals soliciting input from their soldiers on the battlefield.

Secretaries Rachel Levine, of the Department of Health, and Teresa Miller, of Human Services, toured the Eastgate Avenue digs before sitting down for an open-ended discussion about progress in a two-year-old state initiative that’s part of an effort to curb swelling rates of opioid addiction and deaths from overdoses.

SPHS operates a state Center of Excellence at its site in Monessen, plus another at its facility in Washington, under a program the state established in 2016 to direct funding toward facilities that would help treat addicts’ underlying psychological and physical illnesses as well as substance abuse.

Much of the conversation centered on how the program has allowed staffers to help people enter treatment programs – often after repeated contact with them – and encourage them to stay in the program, as SPHS staffers gave feedback from their experiences in the field.

Cheryld Emala, who supervises SPHS’s Center of Excellence program, said it’s allowed the organization to integrate different aspects of patients’ treatment, including mental health services and primary care.

“A lot of the times, it’s siloed,” she said. “So being with the COE, they’re able to really access all those different aspects ... Like I always say, we’ve got to wrap them so tight they don’t unwind.”

Figures provided by SPHS show 83 percent of the 574 people who’ve been referred to the Mon Valley center since it was added in 2016 entered treatment. Of all referrals, 75 percent have remained in treatment longer than 30 days.

Gov. Tom Wolf declared a state of emergency because of the opioid epidemic in January. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration recently pegged total overdose deaths statewide last year at 5,456, a more than 64-percent increase since 2015.

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