In the past several years, a spike in overdose deaths from prescription painkillers, a crackdown on clinics and pharmacies identified as “pill mills” and an increase in heroin addictions across Ohio have done much to focus attention on how to deal with the growing problem of narcotic drugs, or opiates. These include morphine, heroin, codeine, methadone and brand-name painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.
Such is the extent of the problem that law enforcement, health and social service agencies describe addiction to heroin and other opiates as a statewide epidemic. County coroners reported more than 600 heroin deaths last year compared to fewer than 300 in 2010. The expense of combating drug addictions and related illnesses is estimated at more than $3 billion a year in Ohio. It is heartening, for that reason, that bipartisan interest remains high in the Ohio House to craft a comprehensive approach to the problem.
For much of this summer, a House study committee explored the drug epidemic, taking extensive testimony. The effort so far has yielded 11 bills taking on various aspects of the problem. The profusion of bills reflects the range of concerns. It also signals a potential for overreach and the sensitivity that will be needed to construct a legislative framework that will prove effective in controlling the epidemic.
State Rep. Robert Sprague, the Findlay Republican who chaired the study committee, correctly identifies lack of access and “treatment silos” as key barriers to addiction recovery in Ohio. There is great merit, thus, in his insisting that an integrated approach would be the most productive way to break opiate addictions.
Proposals under consideration would require county boards of behavioral health to provide services including recovery housing, counseling, mentoring and residential and outpatient treatments. Medicaid and private insurers would be required to cover the cost of treatments. Drug courts would receive some funding. Physicians would have to check patient history in a prescription database before prescribing an opiate.
The state has a responsibility to craft an effective response to a public health and economic issue. Without question, an integrated treatment and prevention process is essential. But there also is a need to balance the responsibility with the concerns raised, among others, by physicians, who worry that such requirements as a mandatory database review or referrals to pain specialists before opiates can be prescribed could cause unacceptable delays in treatment. After the dogfight over Medicaid expansion, the irony is that Republican sponsors hope to tap into those funds for much of the program’s funding.