Congressional combatants must unite to fight plague of heroin abuse in America

Count on conflict, controversy and catfights to erupt anew this week when our nation’s enemy political animals sink their teeth into President Barack Obama’s proposed 2017 federal budget.

The president will toss out the red meat Tuesday in the form of a spending blueprint for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Expect gnashing of the teeth over an expected increase to $587 billion for military spending. Count on consternation over a proposed $10 per barrel fee for oil producers to finance infrastructure improvements. And anticipate anguish over a plan to require employers to enroll all workers into Individual Retirement Accounts.

But there is one compelling slice of the president’s budget pie previewed to the public last week that Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike should universally swallow and savor. That relatively tiny morsel of the overall $1 trillion-plus plan holds promise toward lessening what is arguably the nation’s most-pressing domestic crisis today: opiate and heroin abuse.

Obama’s plan targets $1.1 billion in federal revenue to a variety of treatment, prevention and enforcement initiatives designed to reverse the staggering levels of death and destruction opiate abuse has wrought upon our nation.

How serious is the epidemic? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose ranks as the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Of those, 18,893 were tied to opiates, mostly heroin.

Ohio is at the epicenter of that epidemic, with the number of heroin deaths ballooning more than 300 percent in the last eight years to about 20 per week today. In Trumbull County, heroin deaths in 2015 skyrocketed 50 percent over 2014 to 81, officials reported.


Clearly, the plague of opioid and heroin abuse remains an ongoing cause for alarm and an urgent call to action.

The president’s proposal recognizes as much. It also illustrates that the scourge demands a concerted, unified and multifaceted battle. The initiative rightfully tackles the epidemic on two critical fronts: prevention and treatment.

Approximately $500 million would be used to expand overdose prevention programs for states, increase the availability of medication-assisted treatment, improve access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and support targeted law-enforcement activities.

The overarching element of the plan, however, focuses on expanding treatment. Most of the proposed new money – $920 million – would fund cooperative agreements with states to provide more drug-based treatment for opioid and heroin addictions. The money would be allocated based on the severity of a state’s problem. That means Ohio would be eligible for a significant chunk.

That heavy focus on treatment clearly is not misdirected. In its first year of operation, First Step, Trumbull County’s first stand-alone center for fighting the heroin epidemic, has been inundated with more than 1,000 clients.

Elsewhere in the Valley, the state and the nation, waiting lists of weeks and months for comprehensive-treatment programs leave many potential beneficiaries in the cold.

Such was the case of a Youngstown woman who last summer pleaded with a judge to send her to jail as one viable way she possibly could kick the heroin habit.

The urgent need to improve, expand and speed up treatment options hasn’t been lost on the Buckeye State’s two members of the upper chamber of Congress. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, has co-sponsored The Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act to greatly expand the number of heroin-addicted patients that one physician can treat. On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, is pushing hard for passage this month of his Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It would provide a series of incentives and resources designed to encourage states and local communities to pursue a full array of proven strategies to combat heroin addiction.

That political partnership represents a microcosm of the larger bipartisan unity necessary to make greater inroads and save more lives. If ever there was a time when bold, public-spirited statesmanship was needed, it is now. Congressional unity on our president’s heroin-treatment initiative would represent a solid start toward enhancing our legislators’ statesmanship credentials and, most importantly, toward ebbing the tide of death and destruction the heroin plague continues to sweep in.

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