the Beacon Journal editorial board
Ohio led the nation in deaths from drug overdoses in 2015. Chances are, the state will hold its grim position, the Columbus Dispatch reporting this week that by its count, the toll climbed 36 percent last year, from 3,050 to at least 4,149. The state Department of Health will issue its number in August, with the deaths certain to increase as a handful of counties report and others complete their work.
The value in the Dispatch number is the timing, as the legislature crafts a state budget for the coming biennium. The House has proposed an additional $170 million to combat the opiate epidemic, including funds for expanded treatment facilities, regional detox centers and transitional housing. Now the state Senate must follow the lead.
Yet the House plan represents just a beginning in many ways. A year ago, Greta Johnson, then a state representative from Akron, now an attorney with the Summit County executive, called for declaring a statewide emergency regarding the epidemic. That would free resources. More, it would invite the necessary coordination, the state, for instance, working more effectively with counties and cities to develop and execute strategies.
Recall that in 2010, Ohio had 980 deaths from opioid overdoses, doubling from 2005. The deaths then tripled by 2015. Now they have quadrupled, the Dispatch citing 305 in Summit County and 666 in Cuyahoga County. The Cuyahoga medical examiner told a congressional hearing last week, the toll could reach 800 this year.
Gov. John Kasich and his team insist an emergency declaration is unneeded. They point to the state spending $1 billion a year fighting the epidemic. The state has successes, especially in reducing the abuse of prescription drugs. Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose, is more widely available.
The Medicaid expansion, delivered by the governor, has been a key component. Yet the expansion highlights that most of the funding is federal money.
The state could make a difference using its funding to fill gaps. Many counties lack the local resources or structure of a Summit County. Many coroners are overwhelmed, unable to keep pace with toxicology tests, suggesting a higher death count.
A state task force would drive priority setting and implementation. For instance, more addicts are finding their way to recovery through vivitrol, a medication-assisted treatment. Yet the drug must be supplemented with counseling and other tools. A task force could help ensure the availability, including assistance to build the required staffing.
Other states have declared emergencies to amplify resources and improve coordination. With its numbers, Ohio has more than enough reason. Since 2010, more than 9,200 Ohioans have died from opiate overdoses. Imagine a natural disaster with such a toll. It would be an emergency, the mobilization of resources coming immediately.