Fight looms in Statehouse over opioid funding

Staff and wire reports


Deciding how to tackle Ohio’s massive opioid addiction problem is about to become a major fight inside the Statehouse, as the House and Senate clash over differences in the new two-year state budget.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 24-8 to approve a budget that contains $176 million to address Ohio’s overdose crisis – potentially, depending how one counts it, more than the House-passed $170 million proposal.

But critics say a Senate-passed Medicaid expansion freeze could cripple state efforts to combat a drug epidemic that killed more than 4,000 Ohioans from overdoses in 2016.

“Eleven people a day are dying. Now is not the time to roll back services,” said Cheri Walter, chief executive officer of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities. “We’re going to see a huge increase in overdoses and huge increase in child welfare cases.”

The Senate version of the $65 billion spending plan closes an anticipated budget gap of just over $1 billion through across-the-board agency cuts, program eliminations and behind-the-scenes accounting shifts.

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, voted against the budget bill for 2018 and 2019.

“I don’t think cutting our way out of the budget deficit is a way to build a stronger Ohio,” he said Wednesday night.

Schiavoni, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, said it’s unlikely the cuts will be restored in conference committee before a final vote expected next week. Deadline for adopting the budget is next Friday.

“It’s just a philosophical difference” between Democrats and Republicans on spending priorities, Schiavoni said.

If passed by lawmakers, the plan to ban new Medicaid enrollees after July 1, 2018 — including current enrollees who leave Medicaid because they find better employment — must be approved by federal regulators.

Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said the intention is to have exceptions to the freeze for those with drug addiction or serious mental health conditions.

“A lot of people on the expansion used to have private insurance, but the available options have been decreased because of the regulations and rules by the federal government,” he said. The budget orders the state to seek waivers from federal Medicaid requirements to “help us get control of our industry again.”

The House rejected the Senate budget on Wednesday night, as expected. A joint conference committee will hear updated state revenue estimates today, and the two chambers will try to work out hundreds of differences and finalize the budget by the end of next week.

Medicaid expansion — Gov. John Kasich’s largest response to the opioid crisis — has provided mental health and addiction services to more than 500,000 adults who gained health coverage, according to state data. Most were previously uninsured, and a recent Ohio State University study found that 95 percent of those on the expansion have no other insurance options.

Of the $1 billion Ohio spent last year to reduce drug use and overdose fatalities, $650 million provided treatment through Medicaid expansion. The Senate freeze “will exacerbate the pain felt by adults with low-paying jobs and will fan the fire of addiction in Ohio,” said Steve Wagner, executive director of the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio.

The Columbus Dispatch and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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