NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: We can’t afford to lose the opioid fight

“The stories are gut-wrenching,” Gov. Eric Holcomb wrote in an op-ed for the Indianapolis Star in September: “babies born addicted to drugs; high school athletes who get hooked on the pills they’re prescribed for sports injuries; elderly Hoosiers with chronic pain problems. They come from all walks of life, and they are dying.

“In 2016,” he continued, “more people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. than the total number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. In Indiana, opioid overdose deaths rose 52 percent between 2015 and 2016 and have more than doubled in the last three years.”

According to the Indiana Department of Health, about 1 in 20 Hoosiers have used opioid pain relievers for non-medical uses and there was an average increase in fatal overdoses of 3.5 percent each year in Indiana from 2011-2015.

The opioid epidemic is making headlines throughout the country, and Holcomb and Indiana’s legislators agree the problem needs to remain a priority in the legislative session that began Wednesday.

A key issue, however, is whether the legislature will designate enough money toward fighting the epidemic.

The head of the state’s Department of Child Services, Mary Beth Bonaventura, who was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2013, resigned from her job in December because, she wrote, policies on the opioid crisis supported by the governor’s office are “bent on slashing our budget in ways that all but ensure children will die.”

Indiana currently designates $5 million a year for drug abuse. But the Star reported early in December that “Sen. Jim Merritt, who was responsible for much of the opioid legislation last legislative session, and Holcomb’s appointed drug czar, Jim McClelland, say $5 million a year just isn’t enough.”

Much of the money dedicated to fighting the epidemic comes from federal grant money and donations from local organizations. And, as we noted in an October editorial, Indiana University announced it will dedicate $50 million over the next five years to the opioid epidemic.

Still, we believe the legislature must take this problem seriously enough to make sure there are adequate funds committed and actions planned to end the epidemic.

The governor’s letter touted efforts being made in both prevention and treatment. Allen County Health Commissioner Deborah McMahan organized a task force five years ago to address the problem locally and has been a vocal leader in the fight statewide.

“We need to do more, much more,” Holcomb wrote in his letter. “It took 20 years for the opioid epidemic to get to this point in Indiana, and it will take time for us to overcome it. But, together we can help those struggling with addiction get on the road to recovery.”

This epidemic impacts our children, families, communities, schools, economy, health care system and health care costs. We can’t afford to lose this fight.