What will it take for state legislators to focus on answers to the opioid epidemic?
by Chris Horne
“All 99 of us (in the Ohio House of Representatives) couldn’t be more different, but we all have heroin in common,” says State Rep. Greta Johnson (Akron-D), who has twice in six weeks called for Gov. John Kasich to recognize the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis.
What she wants: A bipartisan joint committee of state representatives and senators appointed by Kasich to spearhead the state’s response to the opioid epidemic. “This is the number one issue I hear about from my constituents,” Johnson says.
While there are task forces in Summit Co. and around the state, Johnson says there is a practical reason for the governor to do this. “We could have 10 to 15 bills related to the epidemic and if they were all signed tomorrow, it would be a disaster,” she says, citing questions about funding, sentencing and whether the different bills would interfere with one another. The joint committee would help ensure the General Assembly is “rowing in the same direction, even if I don’t agree with the direction.”
Why she thinks this is a good idea: Johnson points to the speed with which a medical marijuana bill was passed after Kasich convened a special legislative committee. It both signals where the issue ranks on the state’s list of priorities and can expedite action, especially around the financial aspects of battling the epidemic. “We are sitting $2 billion in the rainy day fund,” she points out, suggesting the state could redirect $400 million to $500 million from the “rainy day fund” to municipalities to help them attack the problem on a local level. But it’s not just about money, it’s about creating a clearinghouse for expert testimony and tackling problems like how to still provide quality care to patients who need help with chronic pain. She also sees the committee as a pathway to increasing the number of qualified providers by helping medical schools and nursing programs find ways to turn out more trained specialists.
How she got involved: Prior to being elected to the Ohio House, Johnson was a Summit Co. prosecutor. Her husband is a police officer. She says she remembers having one case in the mid-2000s involving heroin and thinking, “How did this guy end up in Akron?” She thought it was an anomaly, “a weird blip on my radar,” but now it is “the center of everything.”
Committees can’t fix everything: A mother of two, Johnson also thinks Ohio’s parents have a responsibility to make sometimes difficult decisions as “aggressive advocates” for their children. “Do you really want your 13-year-old to have Vicodin after getting a wisdom tooth pulled?” She says the faith community has a larger role to play but they haven’t fully been included yet. Medically, Johnson sees potential in broadening the availability and use of the so-called “silver bullet” treatment, opiate-blocker Vivitrol, which lasts 30 days for each injection but can cost upwards of $17,000 out-of-pocket for the full treatment course.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, you can get help by calling the Summit Co. ADM Board’s Crisis Hotline at 330-434-9144, or visit them online at admboard.org[Featured image: State Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton) announcing plans in January 2016 for the Medical Marijuana Task Force. (Photo courtesy of ohiohouse.gov)]