COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bus loaded with more than 50 people involved with drug addiction and its treatment headed to Columbus this week to persuade lawmakers to reverse an expected $6.2 million in cuts to their programs.
Some of them testified Wednesday before the House committee working on the budget. Others lent their support.
They all worry because the cuts — considered part of statewide belt-tightening — loom even as the number of those with addictions, especially involving opiates-based pain killers and heroin, has been surging.
The expected budget slashing is being reviewed as legislators consider mid-term policy adjustments and funding changes sought by Gov. John Kasich and majority-party Republicans.
Even before the cuts, the money the state committed to treatment for addiction, wasn’t enough to meet the growing need, said Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Board Chief Bill Denihan.
The Ohio Department of Alcohol & Drug Addiction Services has a total budget of about $200 million in state and federal funds. It then apportions some of the money to local community boards to pay for substance abuse-related services.
The growing use of opiates across the state has created a spate of new addicts and unintentional overdose deaths, including more than 100 related to street heroin alone in Cuyahoga County in 2011.
Rosary Hall at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, one of the larger detoxification and treatment units in the area that takes both insured and indigent patients, has had a waiting list of 3 to 4 weeks this year.
Last year Kasich said the issue needed to be addressed with law enforcement and drug treatment.
Stacey Frohnapfel-Hasson, communications chief for the Department of Alcohol & Drug Addiction Services said other steps have been taken to address opiate addiction.
She noted Kasich’s executive order saying that, as of July 1, changes to Medicaid will allow tens of thousands of addicts who are Medicaid-eligible to get prescriptions for medications treating their addictions during doctor’s office visits.
She said that new benefit should free up some money at the local level, and that as the medications become more widely prescribed, more spots for therapy and treatment should open up.
In addition, the governor allocated more than $1 million to address opiate addiction hotspots, though how that money will be used has not been decided, she said.
But Denihan said that reducing already slim funding will drive addicts and those with mental illness into much more expensive facilities — jails, prisons and hospitals.
He said it costs about $3,500 for drug treatment compared to $36,000 for a year in prison for addicts who commit crimes to support their habits. And he said that it costs more than $170,000 for a year in a mental hospital for those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and who are addicted to drugs.
He estimated that if the cuts were made, at least 400 indigent people in the county and 3,800 Ohioans could be turned away from treatment next year.
Denihan said families and addicts are already desperate because of waiting lists for detoxification and treatment.
“It’s frustrating for families trying to help their family members,” Denihan said. “It makes them question whether the community and the state are serious about it.”
He said the cuts also run counter to a sentencing reform bill that Kasich touted and signed last year.
Now a law, it allows judges discretion to send nonviolent fourth- and fifth-degree felons to community-based halfway-houses instead of prison.
But without mental health and drug treatment, those felons will be funneled back into the system, along with new addicts who commit crimes when they can’t get help.
Denihan said two agencies, Fresh Start and Bridgeway have already closed due to budget problems.
On the bus this week was Michael Pincus, a drug and alcohol addiction case manager with the Murtis Taylor Human Services System who works with former prisoners with mental health diagnoses and drug addictions.
Pincus, a former lawyer who worked to rebuild his life after becoming addicted to crack cocaine more than 17-years ago, said his clients need support.
“People who want help deserve to get help,” Pincus said. “Otherwise we will be creating a city of thieves and criminals.”