COLUMBUS -- A change in the way the state is funneling federal money to local communities to help addicted Ohioans is creating a $20 million shortfall over the next year, causing challenges for agencies trying to treat and prevent addiction.
The plan by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to distribute $63 million in federal money over 18 months instead of a single year is meant to address cash flow problems that at times have left addiction services providers scrambling to cover payroll. Federal money approved last fall, for example, wasn't available until March this year.
Once implemented, the plan will ensure a more stable funding stream for local boards and agencies helping addicted Ohioans, said Tracy Plouck, Mental Health and Addiction Services director.
"We are mindful this will create some short-term challenge for the recipients of the funds, but if we don't fix it, we're going to have the problem indefinitely," Plouck said in an interview.
Gov. John Kasich's upcoming budget may help cover part of the gap, and Ohio's decision to expand Medicaid eligibility for more poor Ohioans should help ease the blow, Plouck said.
The Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, representing local boards, proposed a one-year delay to allow Medicaid expansion more time to work.
The Ohio Council of Behavioral Health & Family Services Providers, representing front-line agencies, supports the state's action, saying the cash flow problems created huge burdens for its small, nonprofit members.
David Pepper, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, criticized the timing of the funding decision.
"I can't think of a worse time to do such an enormous cut to the ability to provide treatment across the state," said Pepper, who has been critical of the state's reaction to the heroin epidemic and has called for a more comprehensive approach.
His opponent, GOP incumbent Attorney General Mike DeWine, calls the heroin epidemic an unprecedented crisis. In response, he's created a special police unit to beef up investigations of heroin rings and has held town halls across Ohio to alert communities to the problem.
This week, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern criticized those town halls, saying, "Ohio needs real action, not pep talks."
The state saw a record 1,914 drug overdose deaths in 2012, according to Department of Health data. Heroin-related deaths soared 60 percent to 680 in 2012, the most recent year of available data, the Health Department found.
In Lorain County, the shortfall represents a 40 percent budget cut at a time of increasing need, said Elaine Georgas, executive director of the county's Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board.
As recently as 2011, the county saw 22 heroin-related deaths. That jumped into the 60s in 2012 and last year, and would have been even higher last year if not for the availability of an anti-overdose drug for emergency responders, Georgas said.
"People understand why families need support and treatment now more than ever," she said. "With this reduction, we're going to have to tell them again services aren't available unless you're Medicaid eligible."