Some Democratic state legislators are leaning on Gov. John Kasich to declare a state emergency to combat the opioid epidemic after President Donald Trump vowed to do so on the federal level.
Such a move by Kasich would allow the state to access previously unavailable federal funds and expand treatment for addicts in Ohio, Rep. Nickie Antonio said.
"When you have a crisis, you look for all options, anything," the Lakewood Democrat said.
Asked if the administration would consider declaring the crisis an emergency, Jon Keeling, Kasich's press secretary, said administration officials don't believe that such a declaration is legally possible.
Keeling also cited the "record $1 billion each year" the state spends to fight abuse and addiction, mostly through a Medicaid expansion funded almost entirely by the federal government. Other efforts on Kasich's watch have included careful monitoring of the prescribing of opioid painkillers to deter abuse.
Ohio is awaiting clarification from the Trump administration about opportunities for states to access more federal funds. "The moment the federal government makes additional resources available, we will do whatever is necessary to get them to Ohio as fast as we can," Keeling said.
Antonio said ensuring that treatment is available to addicts when they need it most is of the utmost importance. Too often, she said, an addict is ready to accept help but is put on a waiting list at a treatment facility.
The sentiment was echoed by Cheri Walter, chief executive officer of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities.
"It's not what you call it; it's how you respond to it," Walter said. Her organization called in March for lawmakers to adopt an emergency declaration.
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Walter said the biggest needs to stem the tide of opioid deaths include increasing the number of detox centers and beds, boosting long-term residential treatment, expanding medication-assisted treatment and improving the availability of naloxone, which blocks or reverses the effects of opioids.
Kasich could declare a statewide public-health emergency and apply for federal funding, which Antonio said could be used to immediately increase the number of beds available to addicts. A Medicaid rule limits residential treatment facilities to 16 beds; violators risk losing funding if they provide more.
Antonio and her Democratic colleagues have called on Kasich for more than a year to declare the drug epidemic an emergency. The governor has rejected such calls, saying, for one thing, that he doesn't have the authority to do so.
"I don't even accept that the governor doesn't have the authority," Antonio said.
Kasich declared a public-safety emergency to cover $9.5 million in security funding for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016, but that differs from a public-health emergency, which typically involves adulterated products.
The Democratic National Committee said Trump's declaration of a drug emergency is meaningless if he continues to support reductions in projected increases in Medicaid spending.
“If Donald Trump plans to take the opioid crisis seriously, he must stop pushing drastic budget cuts to Medicaid and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and instead expand access to treatment programs for Ohioans,” said Mandy McClure, the Democrats' Midwest press secretary. “Medicaid expansion is a lifeline for more than 700,000 Ohioans who gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Now is the time to support communities suffering from the opioid epidemic rather than gutting their critical programs.”
Ohio was rocked by overdose deaths in 2016, when more than 4,100 people died of drug use. The fatal-overdose total soared by 36 percent from the 2015 number, which led the United States. State legislators have homed in on the epidemic, with Republicans increasing funding beyond what Kasich proposed, and Democrats calling repeatedly for an emergency declaration and the allocation of some of the state's $2 billion rainy-day fund to counter the rise in deaths.
Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.