Fight to curb heroin addiction at center of Ohio Senate race

But in what’s shaping up to be a tight U.S. Senate race this fall between incumbent Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, some partisan distinctions are creeping into the vexing issue and how to fix the scourge of unintentional overdose deaths that claimed more than 47,000 American lives in 2014 – more than die in car accidents or by gunshots.

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On Friday, Portman visited Project C.U.R.E., a Dayton drug treatment center, to meet those in recovery and tout his efforts in getting the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, also known as CARA. The bill which easily passed in the Senate would, among other proposals, expand medication assisted treatment, put the overdose antidote naloxone into the hands of more first responders and provide more resources to treat addicts in jail. After a month, it is still awaiting action in the House.

“It’s time for the House to act. It’s time to get it to the president. He’ll sign it,” Portman said. “It’s time for it to come back to this community and others to be able to help people who are addicted get into recovery.”

The Strickland campaign, though, says Portman hasn’t backed up his tough talk against heroin with federal dollars, claiming Portman is making the rounds to Ohio counties taking credit for the drug-prevention and treatment provisions that were eventually included in a $1.8 trillion spending package in December. The omnibus measure passed in December without Portman’s vote.

“Just like the ultimate Washington insider that he is, Senator Portman is trying to brag about drug abuse prevention funding that he actually voted against,” said Strickland campaign spokeswoman Liz Margolis. “It’s commendable that the Senate is trying to do something about this epidemic, but it’s deeply unfortunate that Senator Portman is practicing exactly the kind of D.C. double-talk which frustrates Ohioans about the dysfunctional politics of Washington.”

On Friday, Portman defended CARA and his work across the aisle with co-sponsor Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. He called it “ridiculous” and said Strickland is “playing politics” with the epidemic.

“To me it’s not a political issue. It’s an issue of life and death,” Portman said. “It’s an issue of our communities being able to heal. It’s an issue of our families coming back together.”

Both campaigns say they would do more for Ohioans in the throes of addiction and both campaigns suggest their opponent will do less.

“Ted Strickland when he was governor cut substance abuse treatment programs dramatically in his budgets that became law,” Portman said Friday.

According to a report in the Akron Beacon Journal, Strickland did cut drug and alcohol addiction services 28 percent from from a $51 billion state budget in 2009 while facing a $7 billion deficit.

The Strickland campaign counters that he held office during a national recession, but still made critical investments in drug abuse prevention funding. They also point to a Democratic study that shows Portman supported 2013 and 2014 Republican budgets that would have cut several major mental health and substance abuse services by almost 20 percent as heroin deaths surged. Further, the Beacon Journal report revealed while working on President George Bush’s last federal budget, Portman, who was Director of the Office of Management and the Budget, outlined $248.8 billion in cuts, a 3.6 percent reduction, to drug treatment programs coordinated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and National Institutes of Health.

“As governor, Ted Strickland tackled the scourge of drug abuse through both enforcement and treatment — starting the Ohio Prescription Drug Taskforce, allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars to combat drug abuse, and increasing awareness and education about addiction,” Margolis said. “He’ll bring that same commitment to the U.S. Senate, and unlike Senator Portman he’ll actually do what he says.”

Project C.U.R.E. client William Dickerson said he doesn’t care where the help from, only that it comes and keeps places like Project cure running and able to help opioid addicts like him. Beginning 205 days ago Friday, the 28-year-old who was addicted to pain pills started taking an hour and twenty minute taxi drive each way from Blanchester.

“It doesn’t matter as long as the program gets funded,” Dickerson said. “If it’s bipartisan, that’s awesome.”

Dickerson was one of five Project CURE clients who met with Portman during an hour-long discussion at the center along 1800 North James H. McGee Blvd. More than 600 people come daily to get primarily methadone, but also Suboxone. Both are opioid agonists that help those dependent on pain pills and heroin avoid painful withdrawal symptoms while giving those in treatment time to focus on counseling.

Increased use of the medications is a provision of another Senate bill co-sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. The Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment (TREAT) Act, which cleared the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last month, would expand the ability of doctors to provide more medication-assisted therapies for patients dealing with heroin or prescription drug abuse. Of 2.5 million Americans who abused or were dependent on opioids in 2012, fewer than 40 percent received medication-assisted therapies, according to Brown’s office.

Dickerson said the one-on-one and group counseling he receives at Project C.U.R.E. are every bit as important as the methadone treatment in turning his life around.

“You can change,” he said. “You don’t have to be a statistic and die.”

Portman said federal legislation alone won’t beat back heroin, but it can help make better partners of state and local governments and non-profits.

“This is not going to be solved in Washington, D.C.” he said. “Ultimately it will be solved at places like this in our communities, in our families, and we’ve all got a role to play in that.”

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