To save lives in Ohio's burgeoning opioid epidemic, the state must broaden access to medication-assisted treatment to drug addicts, according to a national health expert.
"If you are looking at the crisis as it exists today with so many people at risk of death from overdose, the most important immediate strategy is to expand access to effective treatment because that's what pulls people back from the edge," said Joshua Sharfstein, an associate dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He pointed to a recent Columbus Dispatch story that overdose deaths jumped at least 36 percent in 2016 over a total that easily led the nation the previous year.
But Gov. John Kasich has balked at providing more funds for treatment despite waiting lists, saying Drug Enforcement Administration officials told him that better education is preferred.
Sharfstein also said access to timely data is crucial. He cited Rhode Island, whose web site already has drug overdose data through April 2017, as well as information on the use of naloxone (a drug used to reverse a heroin overdose), how many got counseling and recovery outcomes. Every health professional and hospital in Rhode Island, the nation's smallest state that has recorded many fewer drug deaths, must report all actual and suspected opiate overdoses within 48 hours.
In contrast, Ohio has only a partial county-by-county drug overdose listing for 2016, which won't be finalized until August. Ohio's most recent naloxone figure is for 2015.
Sharfstein said public officials need up-to-date information both to spread awareness of a rapidly evolving epidemic and to develop appropriate policies in response.
"The opioid epidemic is affecting many, many families," he said. "Legislators who are listening will realize how important it is to make investments in this area."
The governor's two-year budget essentially flat-funded the almost-billion-dollar anti-drug effort. The House added $170.6 million. The Senate is now considering the budget.
During a presentation Tuesday at the Statehouse, Sharfstein, a physician who formerly served as Baltimore health commissioner and Maryland health secretary, also urged Ohio officials to expand the places treatment is offered.
"It's not enough to have a treatment program somewhere with a waiting list," said Sharfstein, whose appearance was sponsored by nonprofits Advocates for Ohio's Future and One Ohio Now.
"Treatment has to come to people the moment they need it and often that is in the emergency department, it could be in jail, and the states that are doing the most promising work are thinking not just about the type of treatment but where to make it available and how to make it available so people can really benefit."
Sharfstein noted a recent study that found a program starting people treated for overdoses in the emergency room on Subaxone, a medication to lessen withdrawal symptoms and block opioid cravings, before they leave the hospital, doubled the success rate.
However, few hospitals across the country offer such treatment despite its effectiveness in treating opioid addiction.
At least 4,149 Ohioans died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2016, an average of 11 people each day from heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil or other drugs. To get that data, GateHouse Ohio Media reporters called each of Ohio's 88 county coroners offices.
House Finance Chairman Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, who spoke before Sharfstein, said lawmakers are eager to address the problem.
"We've probably been as proactive as any states" he said, while acknowledging the problem has only gotten worse.
"Unfortunately there are so many areas we need to hit. There's not one area that we can invest money in to solve this problem. There's no silver bullet."