Editorial: Five states have declared heroin emergencies, but Ohio's crisis is worse

Posted at 6:00 AM, May 30, 2017

Five states have heroin problems severe enough that their elected leaders have declared emergencies to help stem the deaths.

Ohio's problem is worse than all five of them. But Gov. John Kasich will not declare an emergency here.

READ: Editorial: How many more have to die?

Earlier this month, Florida's governor, Rick Scott, became the latest to declare a state of emergency over the heroin crisis. It is a catastrophe in Florida. In 2015, 3,228 people died from overdoses of heroin or other opiates.

But it's worse in Ohio.

Here, with roughly half Florida's population, more people died -- 3,310 -- according to the CDC.

This graphic shows how the death toll in Ohio ranks compared to the five states where heroin emergencies have been declared. Ohio is not only worse than all five, it's one of the worst in the country.


A year ago, we urged Kasich to declare an emergency in Ohio because of the mounting death toll.

READ: Editorial: Governor, declare a heroin emergency 

We do it again now, as other states have taken that urgent step and Ohio's problem continues to worsen.

The Columbus Dispatch reported May 28 that at least 4,149 Ohioans died from drug overdoses in 2016. Although the Ohio Department of Health has not released official figures for 2016 yet, that would be a 25 percent increase from the CDC's 2015 numbers.

An emergency declaration could cut through legislative red tape, make new funding immediately available and position the state to coordinate the range of law enforcement, treatment and prevention agencies that are working on the problem. Kasich should release some of the state's $2 billion budget surplus to expand treatment in local communities, make the rescue medicine naloxone available to all first responders and expand the highway patrol's enforcement effort.

The Kasich Administration says it is treating the crisis with a sense of emergency, and that a declaration of emergency would not add anything that state officials aren't already doing. That includes funding naloxone and proposing to spend $20 million on addiction research.

READ: Editorial: Is Ohio doing enough to fight heroin?

But we believe a declaration of emergency would help unleash the full power of the state, including more funding, on fighting this epidemic.

These five states did so. Here are thumbnails of their emergency plans:

Massachusetts: Then-governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency in March 2014, dedicating an additional $20 million for treatment. He made naloxone more widely available without a prescription and ordered a state agency to coordinate a plan on improving treatment, regardless of insurance. "We will treat it like the public health crisis it is," Patrick said at the time.

Virginia: In November 2016, the state's health commissioner, with the blessing of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, declared a public health emergency. The order made naloxone more widely available without a prescription and raised awareness around the state of the severity of Virginia's problem. "We must treat it as a public health issue as we have done for other health emergencies," said the commissioner, Dr. Marissa Levine.

Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in March, which came with $50 million in new funding. He appointed his emergency management chief to lead and coordinate the response among state, local and community agencies. "This is about taking an all-hands-on-deck approach so that together we can save the lives of thousands of Marylanders," Hogan said.

Alaska: In February, Gov. Bill Walker ordered all state departments to apply for federal grants for prevention, treatment, enforcement and for prescription drug monitoring. He also ordered his health department to take charge of the state's response and the department of corrections to treat prisoners with medication and other addiction services. "Heroin and opioid addiction is a disease that knows no socioeconomic or cultural barriers," Walker said.

Florida: Gov. Scott's declaration said current state funding "may be inadequate to pay the costs of coping with this severe circumstance." He ordered that "sufficient funds be made available, as needed." Significantly, that includes using money from his state's budget surplus.

Ohio enjoys a budget surplus of more than $2 billion -- the so-called Rainy Day Fund -- but Kasich has resisted using any of it against the heroin crisis.

Ohio officials have indeed taken big steps to address the problem in this state, but it just keeps getting worse. The death toll from drug overdose has doubled over five years. Kasich should release more money for treatment and enforcement, order the health department to take the lead on coordinating action statewide, and recognize this crisis for what it is: An emergency.