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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, December 03, 2016 10:01 pm

State officials vow to take on epidemic

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana officials so far have tinkered around the edges of the addiction epidemic.

But with a new state budget under consideration starting in January it could be time for a serious discussion about putting dollars behind treatment and prevention.

Gov. Mike Pence has had a task force working on the issue since September 2015, focusing so far on some smaller administrative changes. One example is expanding access to a life-saving heroin overdose drug. Another is applying Indiana’s lifeline law to drugs as well as alcohol. That law gives immunity from prosecution to someone who calls an ambulance to help someone in need. 

Meanwhile, Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb campaigned on several planks dealing with addition – whether it be illegal drugs like heroin and meth or prescription drugs like Vicodin.

He specifically wants to expand access to mental health addiction services in the Healthy Indiana Plan and Medicaid program.

And he wants to focus on mitigating property crime and pharmacy robberies through increased focus on drug treatment.

And one Republican state senator is preparing a host of bills on the topic.

Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, said the task force just scratched the surface. But Indiana has made a lot of progress educating the public that addiction is an illness, not a character flaw.

"We have changed the mindset to an illness or medical issue rather than just a jail issue," he said. "We need to help Hoosiers."

He said there aren’t enough providers and so few beds in the state and the cost is so high that sometimes people purposely commit a felony to go to the Indiana Department of Correction to get help.

Merritt concedes that finding the money for a continuum of care – detox, treatment and recovery – is a key issue. Especially when tax revenues have been modest at best.

But the state has to start somewhere, and Merritt said he has a few pilot projects in mind.

The first would be a grant program to specifically help women who are either pregnant or already have children. He said this move could also help the Department of Child Services, which has seen caseloads rise because of addiction.

He wants a southern Indiana pilot to gather data and "maybe we can crawl before we walk."

Merritt also thinks there should be a sober living facility for misdemeanants. Currently, the program is only for felons.

Other small ideas include making welfare and food stamps available to those with drug convictions. Currently, they are barred even though someone who commits a murder or rape can serve their time and get public assistance.

Merritt will also have legislative proposals on data collection, a statewide database for controlled substances, legislation requiring coroners to note cause of death as overdose in those cases and several bills concerning law enforcement.

nkelly@jg.net