- Katie Wedell Staff Writer
In recent years the economy has dominated the race for governor in Ohio.
This time a different topic might take center stage: the opioid crisis.
Each of the candidates in a crowded field — both Republicans and Democrats — are staking out positions for handling the crisis, with some calling for dramatic measures to quell an epidemic that shows no signs of slowing.
On average, eight people died of opioid overdose per day in Ohio in 2016. That’s one Pike County massacre every single day for 365 days. Experts predict the number of deaths statewide will surpass 5,000 in 2017.
Montgomery County has been particularly hard hit. There were 349 accidental drug overdoses deaths in the county in 2016. As of Friday, the coroner’s office had completed exams in 348 cases in 2017.
In other words, local overdose deaths in the county are set to surpass 2016’s record total by Memorial Day.
“If this death rate remains at current pace, Montgomery County could experience over 800 accidental OD cases for 2017,” said Ken Betz, director of the Montgomery County coroner’s office. “There are no words to explain this level of unnecessary tragic deaths in our community. The impact to families, neighbors, children will be with us for a long time.”
Montgomery County is far from the only community dealing with the fallout from opioid abuse, which leads to overcrowded jails serving as detox centers, countless hours in lost labor for employers, record numbers of children in foster care, and emergency services stretched thin.
With so much at stake, Ohio’s candidates for governor are scrambling to send a message to voters that they have a solution, or at least a strategy for attacking the crisis. To compare those positions, this newspaper questioned each of the eight people who have said they are running for governor about their short- and long-term drug plans.
Each one said there is no “silver bullet” for attacking the crisis and that a multi-pronged approach is needed, using federal, state and local resources. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, has proposed making drug companies pay for treatment, arguing that they’re responsible for the crisis by hooking individuals on powerfully addictive medications that lead them to seek out drugs like heroin and fentanyl.
Republican Jon Husted, Ohio’s Secretary of State, said that won’t be his approach if he’s elected governor. Instead, he will push for more and better treatment options, including technological advances that speed non-opioid pain medications.
Here is a summary of each candidate’s position.
Mike DeWine, Republican
DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general, wants to expand several programs he said are already making a difference in parts of the state, for very little cost.
In the Lucas County DART program, 21 officers intervene with addicts at the point of overdose, he said, becoming that person’s advocate in working through the legal, treatment and recovery process.
DeWine’s office is also piloting a program in 19 southern Ohio counties to help families where children have been affected by a parent’s drug use; he’d like to see more counties use drug courts.
“From the emergency room to sobriety, we need to make it easier and more seamless,” he said.
DeWine has developed a curriculum for age-appropriate, K-12 education that is aimed at spreading awareness at a young age. It’s been sent to all school districts, he said, and would be made mandatory if he’s elected governor.
“I think it can be done with a minimal amount of cost and disruptions,” he said. “I’m committed to getting in front of this drug problem.”
Jon Husted, Republican
Husted said he supports a proposed bill to change the state’s prescription drug guidelines so they more closely mirror federal recommendations and allow fewer pills per pharmacy fill.
“You gotta get at the core problem of where this started and that was the abuse of prescription opioids,” Husted said.
He doesn’t support Whaley’s plan to sue drug companies, however, saying it would take years when the people of Ohio need results now.
He supports more treatment facilities, more personnel and more research for better non-opioid pain medications.
“Technology will be a longer term solution,” he said.
To pay for his plan, Husted said he’d cut inefficiency and bureaucracy as he’s done in the Secretary of State’s office, freeing up more money to attack the crisis.
“There’s no question that it costs money and these are challenges that we’re going to have to prioritize,” he said.
Connie Pillich, Democrat
A former state representative from Cincinnati, Pillich said improving Ohio’s economy will have an impact on the drug crisis.
“People are self-medicating and it escalates into heroin abuse,” she said.
Pillich favors more education for kids on the dangers of addiction — done in an age-appropriate way, she said — more tools for law enforcement and more treatment funding.
Supporting families in the throes of addiction is of utmost importance, she said.
“We have a shared responsibility to address this,” Pillich said. “There is a shared impact on all of our communities if we fail.”
She said the federal government hasn’t done enough to help out states like Ohio.
“If the priority of the federal government is not to keep people alive in the face of the largest public health crisis of our century, then we have misplaced our priorities,” she said.
Jim Renacci, Republican
A congressman representing a district in northeast Ohio, Renacci said major strides were made with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which he voted for in Congress last year.
The legislation established $1 billion in grants available to states over the next two fiscal years to assist with responses to the opioid epidemic. The grant money is prioritized for states with a higher prevalence of opioid abuse, putting Ohio first in line for funds, he said.
“We need to get those in the abyss of addiction the treatment they need to rebuild their lives and the health care professionals who treat them the resources they need to save lives,” Renacci said.
The federal government needs to do more to stop the flow of heroin, fentanyl, and other addictive drugs across the border and in the mail, according to Renacci.
“Today, the cartels too easily move these deadly drugs into America and into our homes,” he said.
He wants to see federal and state regulators answer for the years they failed to hold pill mill doctors and pharmacies accountable for over-prescribing the opioids that started this crisis.
To support all the community players needed to attack this problem, Ohio needs a budget that prioritizes vital services, he said.
“Ohio must address its looming short-term and long-term budget shortfalls, including the massive cuts to basic services our state will face based upon the current trajectory of future Medicaid expansion spending,” he said. “As governor, I’ve committed to tackling those issues from day one.”
Joe Schiavoni, Democrat
As a state senator, Schiavoni introduced a bill this month that calls for using 10 percent of the state’s rainy day fund for education and allocations to local governments for addiction services, children services, law enforcement, first responders, and drug courts.
“This stuff is real and this stuff is not going to get better with the (Kasich) administration plan of ‘lets start talking about drugs,’” he said.
His plan assists local communities but also gives them a lot of flexibility, he said.
“Franklin County’s going to have different needs than Montgomery County, than Carroll County,” Schiavoni said.
He advocates allocating funds to expand treatment facilities and other recovery programs like job retraining.
“I worked in a drug court and saw how powerful mentoring and wraparound services can be,” he said.
To those who criticize the use of tax money to pay for others’ bad choices, he said, “I’m talking about 10 percent in order to deal with this crisis that is getting worse every day. You’re either going to pay for rehabilitation or you’re going to pay for incarceration.”
Betty Sutton, Democrat
Sutton, a former U.S. representative who lost to Renacci in 2012, calls for a multi-faceted approach.
“I’m prepared to lead the fight in a multi-pronged attack which will include focusing on prevention and treatment, compelling federal and state leadership to hold drug companies accountable, aggressively punishing those who are dealing these drugs, educating the youth and adults about the horrible effects of addiction and focusing on effective treatment and rehabilitation,” she said.
Additionally, she sees a direct correlation from unemployment to addiction.
“We must create good jobs and opportunities for these people,” she said. “Nothing stops a needle like a good job.”
Sutton says she’s stood up to drug companies in the past, voting for bills that called for re-importation of affordable medicine from Canada and for the federal government to be able to negotiate drug prices.
She said the nation’s budget priorities must change.
“We have seen a lot of priority on cutting taxes for those who are the most well-off among us,” she said. “We have to make things work for every day Ohioians.”
Mary Taylor, Republican
Lt. Gov. Taylor said combating the opioid epidemic would be a top priority for her if elected. She said she’s talking to the nation’s leading experts to develop a comprehensive plan.
“I do know there is no single answer,” she said. “The problem is too complex and changing dramatically. What we need is a comprehensive, fully integrated drug control strategy — one that makes use of the broad array of tools available to us in government and out of government, including law enforcement, treatment, education, public service campaigns, and border interdiction.”
She also wants to see more federal pressure on the cartels that produce heroin and bring it into the U.S., as well as more and better treatment facilities and a review of prescribing practices to deal with misuse.
“The drug epidemic is touching countless lives in Ohio and in America,” Taylor said. “We must continue to rise to meet this challenge, or else the human cost — which is already so high — will grow higher still.”
Nan Whaley, Democrat
In her first batch of campaign ads, the Dayton mayor called out the pharmaceutical companies for their role in creating this crisis and she wants to make them pay for the treatment and other programs now needed to clean it up.
“We need to have bold leadership,” she said. “To date we’ve seen no movement from the Statehouse wanting to hold the people who started this accountable.”
Beyond suing, which other states have done with some success, Ohio could charge a surplus on each pill dispensed, Whaley said.
“We’re number one in opiate deaths, so it’s not enough just to do what everyone else in the country has done,” she said.
The state spends approximately $1 billion per year addressing the opioid epidemic, she said, and local communities are pressed for resources to deal with the amount of police, EMS and recovery services needed.
“This is a natural disaster and we need to treat it as the epidemic it is,” she said.