Carol Costello: The opioid epidemic is one of the biggest crises of our time
If Republican lawmakers succeed with their new healthcare plan, many addicts will be without access to the treatment options they need, writes Costello
Editor’s Note: Carol Costello is the host of “Across America with Carol Costello” on HLN. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Once, in the land of “the way it used to be,” an American family lived in a tidy ranch-style home on Spangler Road in Canton, Ohio. It checked every box on the proverbial middle class heartland form.
Dad, a former Marine, worked at Republic Steel. He made enough money so mom could be there when the kids came home from school. The neighborhood was alive with white picket fences, neighborly picnics and friendly contests on who had the best-kept lawn.
I know this, because as a child, I dreamed big in that neighborhood.
Today, Spangler Road looks, as President Trump might say, sad!
As I watch Democrats obstruct the man Stark County voted into office and Republicans struggle to convince America they can govern, neighborhoods like Spangler Road languish in the midst of one of the biggest health crises of our lifetime.
The opioid trade has made its presence known here, placing this tiny part of Northeast Ohio in the heart of the country’s heroin epidemic.
And if Republican lawmakers succeed with their new health care plan – which would increase by tens of millions the number of people without health insurance and massively cut Medicaid – they will be complicit in making the heroin crisis worse.
We had never heard of opioids back when Spangler Road sparkled. Some of our parents’ friends were addicted to cigarettes or, in extreme cases, alcohol. Today, heroin deaths are a dime a dozen in Stark County. I am not exaggerating. From 2012 to 2014 – in just two years – heroin deaths tripled.
President Trump, congressmen, if you need a more vivid example, Dr. Ann DiFrangia, who works at Akron General Hospital counseling dozens of heroin addicts in Ohio, is willing to provide one. Are you ready? “Our medical examiners and coroners had to rent cooler trucks because they didn’t have enough rooms to store the dead bodies for autopsy.”
DiFrangia is angry, as are a lot of public officials in Northeast Ohio. They are desperate for help, not for a Trump “win” or an unpopular congressional “promise” kept.
Judge Frank Forchione, who presides in Stark County Court, has known my family forever. He greeted me with a box of Canton-made Heggy’s Candies when I visited his courtroom a few weeks ago.
“We need help,” he told me. “If we don’t get our young people on track, where is America going to go?”
He talks tough to repeat offenders. “One of two things are going to happen,” he tells them from the bench. “You are going to prison for a long time, or you are going to die.”
Then, he added, “I had a gentleman that repeatedly gave heroin to two young people. They died. I gave him 15 years.”
These drug offenders – many white and middle class – are users turned dealers, turned petty criminals, turned killers. They could have been my neighbors back in the day. But they are desperate now. Some mouth obscenities as Forchione hands down justice, others bow their heads in shame.
Still, Forchione cares. “I tell them in the courtroom, I will be out to visit you. Some,” he told me, “just need someone to believe in them.”
Forchione works closely with Stark County Sherriff George Maier, another native Ohioan. “Last year in our county,” he told me, “we had 26 traffic deaths, which is unacceptable in my profession. Last year we had 112 unintentional opiate deaths in Stark County. It’s a crisis.”
There is sadness and compassion in Maier’s voice when he tells me this, and it surprises me. He looks like a tough guy, one who would be happy to come down hard on lawbreakers. “We can’t arrest our way out of this,” he said wearily.
Maier’s jail is overflowing with drug offenders. But he doesn’t need a “big, beautiful wall” or more police powers – he needs beds.
“I run the biggest drug treatment center in Stark County,” he told me. “It’s in my jail.”
Maier partnered with CommQuest Services, an Ohio-based drug treatment agency, to give inmates the option of rehabilitation. “It’s the first stop,” he said. “Rehab may not work the first time, but it’s a start in the right direction.”
He has also ordered his deputies to carry Narcan kits. Narcan is a nasal spray that can jolt an overdose victim back to life. Who knew? Deputies acting as paramedics, jailers as rehabbers and judges as community activists in my home county?
Trump trounced Clinton in Stark County, Ohio – a county that went Obama in 2008 and 2012. I don’t doubt many here admire Trump, but I also know many voters in my football-loving hometown threw a Hail Mary pass with their vote. They voted Trump because, for once, they are forgoing their pride and are asking, out loud, for help.
Yes, President Trump has formed a task force to study the epidemic. He put Governor Chris Christie in charge. Still, it’s hard to believe the fight against opioids is top on the President’s list. “It’s hilarious to watch Christie and Trump,” Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown told me. “It’s like Trump needed to give the odd-man-out Christie something to do, so he tasked him with the heroin epidemic,” Brown said.
“We need funding,” he said. “Not a bunch of know-it-alls sitting around a table.”
According to a Harvard-NYU study done earlier this year, 220,000 Ohioans with addiction or mental health disorders now have coverage under Obamacare – 151,257 through the Medicaid expansion and 69,225 under private insurance purchased through the marketplace.
If lawmakers cut Medicaid and repeal Obamacare, Brown told me, it would have a devastating effect on Ohioans’ ability to pay for rehabilitation.
And while it’s great that President Trump’s budget includes $100 million for the fight against opioids, you will have a hard time finding anyone on the front lines of this crisis to tell you it’s enough.
Keith Hochadel is with CommQuest Services, that Ohio drug treatment agency working with the Stark County Sheriff. There is currently a 21-day wait for female addicts to get into rehab. CommQuest’s coffers, as they say, are full.
According to Hochadel, a full 65% of the agency’s clients depend on Obamacare or Medicaid to pay for treatment. If lawmakers strip those people of their lifeline, “I’ll be pissed,” Hochadel told me. “If this were a flu epidemic, there would be no question about funding.”
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Which brings me back to Spangler Road, hurt by a loss of manufacturing jobs and now pushed to the edge by Northeast Ohio’s heroin epidemic.
President Trump, allow me to put what happened to my quaint middle class neighborhood in terms with which you are familiar. My parents bought their Spangler Road home in 1953 for $16,900 – or $154,315 in 2017 dollars. Today, according to Zillow, the house is only worth $56,329.
Yes, President Trump, Ohioans want our country the “way it used to be,” but they need your help to make things great again.