The next governor of Ohio in all likelihood will inherit a drug crisis that continues to kill thousands of Ohioans each year.
The annual cost of opiate abuse, addiction and overdoses to Ohio is estimated at $6.6 billion to $8.8 billion, according to researchers at Ohio State University. Beyond the dollars and cents, the scourge is killing on average of 12 Ohioans every day.
As the various candidates — four Republicans and five Democrats and counting — circle the state and lay out their plans for solving the crisis, we asked each to say what they would do about reducing overdose deaths if elected.
Here are their ideas:
1. Make drug companies accountable. Two candidates — Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Nan Whaley — have filed separate lawsuits against drug companies, saying they are largely responsible for getting so many Ohioans addicted to highly addictive opioids. “A man-made epidemic that these billion-dollar companies created overnight is one our communities will spend years trying to reverse,” said Whaley, the Dayton mayor. Another Democratic candidate, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, said she favors suing drug companies, but another Democrat, Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill, thinks the lawsuits don’t make sense because it commits the state to years of litigation and legal fees.
2. Declare a public health emergency.DeWine has a 12-step recovery plan that includes passing legislation to give the governor authority to declare a public health emergency that could free up federal money for the fight. Sutton also says if elected, she’ll move to declare the epidemic a state of emergency. She called the opiate crisis “our hurricane.”
3. Invest in new programs. Although Democrats and Republicans are at opposite sides on the question of repealing Obamacare, it’s not known if that will happen or what health care system will be in place when the next governor takes office. Given that uncertainty, virtually all of the candidates have endorsed some change in how public money is used. Former Ohio Rep. Connie Pillich, a Democrat, said she wants to treat addicts like patients, not criminals, crack down on street dealers and pill mills, and redirect funds for children services and mentorship programs. DeWine would step up law enforcement data sharing, expand drug task forces, as well as drug courts. Whaley wants to open the state’s emergency operations center to help respond to the crisis. U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci pledged to work with cities and counties on the opiate crisis, but he argues money isn’t the answer. “It still comes down to there is no answer that’s based on money because when you think you have enough money, it runs out,” he said.
4. Invest in drug treatment. Whaley wants to charge a nickel per dose surcharge for every prescription painkiller sold in the state, which she says will generate roughly $31.5 million a year to pay for first responders, substance abuse stabilization centers and state psychiatric hospitals. Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor has proposed a 10-year, $1 billion bond to pay for drug treatment, as well as hire more narcotics cops and other measures. Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted said he would invest in drug treatment as well, but he argues the state should demand more personal accountability from drug users so they take ownership of their own health. As part of that process, he wants to tie Medicaid benefits to work or job-training requirements. “I think the opioid crisis is a symptom of a lot of other breakdowns in our economy and our society,” Husted said. “It is not the cause of our problems. It is a symptom of our problems.”
5. Other solutions. O’Neill said he favors legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana use and release non-violent inmates with pot charges from state prisons. He calculates those steps alone would raise $300 million a year that would allow the state to open 10 regional mental health hospitals that could treat 40,000 people a year. Ohio Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat, wants to earmark 10 percent of the state’s $2 billion rainy day fund for drug addiction services, children services, law enforcement, first responders and drug courts. He also wants to roll back state tax cuts for wealthy Ohioans enacted during the Kasich administration and require insurance companies to cover alternatives to opioids for pain management. Taylor, perhaps more than the others, has used her own personal story as part of her campaign. Both her sons, Michael and Joe, have struggled with addiction. She believes knocking down the stigma will go a long way toward making progress. “Ask anyone who is dealing with addiction in their family and it’s one day at a time,” she said in Dayton recently. “That’s the way we take it. But today is a good day. We are full of hope.”