A Costly Crisis: County spending on the opiate epidemic

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Ohio (WDTN) –  The opiate epidemic in Montgomery County has gained national attention from media outlets across the country.

The President’s declaration that it is a national health emergency in October shows not only the county is impacted, but the entire state.

31-year-old Sarah Northrop-Fowler was 13 when she started experimenting with drugs.

“I overdosed twice on heroin and was brought back by NARCAN.”

“I overdosed twice on heroin and was brought back by NARCAN. I come from a broken home, broken family and I was in and out of detention centers,” she said.

As Ohio grapples with one of the deadliest drug epidemics in American history, the state’s criminal justice system has undergone a similar transformation. Local law enforcement and judges know that they can no longer treat all addicts like criminals. To stop an epidemic, they have to think like medical professionals.

“It’s changed the way we do business,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer.

A cheap high at an expensive cost to the county and its taxpayers. In 2017, the county is projected to spend nearly $24.7 million on the opiate epidemic alone, according to the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board.

ADAMHS Executive Director Helen Jones-Kelley says it’s not a problem the county can spend its way out of.

“The county wouldn’t be willing to tax people to the point where we could have enough dollars. We couldn’t afford it. There just isn’t that ability,” said Jones-Kelley.

Sheriff Plummer believes the county is blindly spending and is pushing for more dollars to come into law enforcement efforts.

“We need to cut the supply coming in from Mexico and China. We need to triple our task force efforts, imagine the results we would see then,” said Plummer.

While Jones-Kelley and Plummer may disagree on strategy efforts, both agree there isn’t enough resources and hope voters will pass Issue 3, a renewal levy this November.

“Without it that means half of the dollars that come into this community for human services would be lost,” said Jones-Kelley.

Issue 3 also known as the Human Services Levy is expected to pump $56 million annually into the county. The levy, which won’t raise taxes not only funds addiction services, but other public health entities like the Department of Developmental Disabilities and the Department of Aging.

“When voters voted for this it was in 2010 for the current level of dollars,” said Jones-Kelley.

So far this year, the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office has recorded 512 overdose deaths. The initial projection for the end of the year was 800, more than double compared to 2016. Now, health officials believe the number will be significantly lower thanks to their efforts this year.

For recovering addicts like Sarah the hand up is crucial. She’s been living in a recovery house in Dayton for the past three months.

“We’re dying out here. Addiction is rough. It takes you to the bottom.”

“We’re dying out here. Addiction is rough. It takes you to the bottom,” she said.

One issue Sheriff Plummer says that doesn’t add up is the number of treatment beds compared to the number of people addicted in the county. Currently, ADAMHS funds a total of 90 inpatient treatment beds and 30 outpatient beds.

“Through our intelligence center, we think 14,000 people are addicted in this community. So, we’ve lost 512 this year to overdose deaths. So, there’s a lot of people that need treatment. There isn’t a standard of care,” said Plummer.

Jones-Kelley says every addict should be treated on a case by case basis saying not every patient needs to 24/7 care.

“Some people do better in outpatient programs, some do better at home and it depends on the needs of the patient, which makes it harder to scale the right number of beds,” she said.

Currently, there are vacant beds and no wait times, unless you have a dual diagnosis.

“People who are addicted and have a mental illness might have to wait 2-3 weeks, but for someone who has that need we would still have them connected to services while they wait for a bed to open up,” said Jones-Kelley.

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