And, if that wasn’t bad enough, outrageous federal loopholes currently allow manufacturers from China to ship fentanyl, a deadly opioid which is stronger and cheaper than heroin, into our communities. Dealing with the opioid epidemic requires a diverse array of treatment strategies and options that must involve our criminal justice, law enforcement, and public health systems. A multifaceted approach is required to address this issue, and it is imperative that we are making the right investments at every turn.
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, sponsored by Ohio Senator Rob Portman recently passed with a bi-partisan vote of 92-2. The goal of this law is to shift focus away from fighting the drug war through mass incarceration, and build up America’s treatment capacity. It included, among other things, greater funding for law enforcement and treatment, and increased the patient cap on doctors prescribing buprenorphine, a bridge treatment which reduces withdrawal symptoms and cravings that too often drive addicts back to drug dealers.
In Ohio, a drug known as Suboxone is the state’s preferred buprenorphine treatment paid for by Medicaid. But it is far from an ideal medication. Suboxone comes in film strip form and is available in limited dosages, meaning physicians often have to prescribe higher doses than a patient’s actual needs. As a result, we are seeing patients sell their excess strips on the black market for more than twice their value. Suboxone strips are also commonly smuggled into prisons and resold to inmates, compounding drug addiction problems in our prisons.
In Columbus, Suboxone smuggling into the Franklin County Jail became such a problem that the facility had to ban all outside deliveries of underwear and socks, which were easily used to conceal film strips. And in Southwest Ohio, officials at the Warren and Lebanon Correctional Institutions report that they are seeing an influx in Suboxone smuggling and abuse in those facilities. Law enforcement in Ohio is already overwhelmed trying to fight the drug epidemic in our communities, and now a purported solution to the opiate epidemic is exacerbating the problem.
Notably, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and 35 other attorneys general have sued the makers of Suboxone. The bipartisan suit argues that an aggressive pricing scheme and monopolistic practices have delayed alternatives to keep prices artificially high. Not only have their actions been a burden on taxpayers, they have prevented other drug manufacturers from offering patients and Medicaid programs more efficient options with tailored dosage levels and larger barriers to diversion into prisons and black markets.
To be clear, ensuring access to MATs is important. When used properly, these treatments save lives. But in Ohio, almost all of Medicaid’s spending on these treatments is paying for Suboxone, when there are other effective options available. Limited taxpayer resources shouldn’t be paying for medications that are ultimately costing the state in other ways.
By adopting a multi-faceted approach to addressing the opioid epidemic—expanding access to treatments, stopping well-intentioned Medicaid policies that are making the drug epidemic worse, and stopping the trafficking of illegal drugs at the border and in our communities—Ohio and America can use these evidence-based policy changes to keep more people alive and stop the opioid crisis.
Ken Blackwell is the former mayor of Cincinnati, Treasurer and Secretary of State for Ohio, undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
The views expressed in opinion articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by Black Community News.