- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - State officials should reconsider a funding change affecting agencies that provide addiction services, Ohio’s Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general said Thursday.

The Associated Press recently reported that a change in the way the state is funneling federal money to county addictions boards and local providers is creating a $20 million shortfall over the next year.

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.

Gubernatorial contender Ed FitzGerald and attorney general candidate David Pepper questioned the timing of the decision at a Thursday news conference in Columbus, saying the shortfall hampers efforts to combat Ohio’s painkiller and heroin epidemic.

“This was not a decision that had to be made,” FitzGerald said. “They made a bureaucratic decision without realizing that there could be an interruption in services or treatment, and that’s a foolish decision.”

The federal government’s decision to start delaying grants from October to March of the following year leaves a huge funding gap for counties and providers, addictions agency director Tracy Plouck said late Thursday. She said appeals to the feds have “essentially been ignored.”

“We’re as frustrated as everyone else and hope that the federal government will reverse its decision or resolve the problem it has created,” Plouck said in a statement. Messages left with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Plouck has previously said Gov. John Kasich’s upcoming budget may help cover part of the gap, and Ohio’s decision to expand Medicaid eligibility should help ease the blow.

County addictions officials understand the state’s rationale but have said the shortfall created by the change hampers their fight. Local providers support the state’s move, saying the cash flow problems are creating huge burdens.

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.

Ahead of the news conference, health care and mental health advocates released a letter they said was sent weeks ago to all statewide contenders and those running for the General Assembly. In it, they urge candidates not to politicize drug abuse and addiction.

“All too often we have seen the polarizing, trivializing effect that heated campaign rhetoric can have on serious issues,” wrote the groups, which include the Drug Free Action Alliance.

Kasich and Attorney General Mike DeWine, both Republicans running for re-election, frequently address the state’s addictions epidemic and have been holding town halls across Ohio on the issue. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the state GOP accused FitzGerald and Pepper of politicizing the problem.

“It’s tone deaf at best and ghoulish at worst that these Democrats are seeking political gain from the suffering of Ohioans with drug addictions and mental illness,” said Chris Schrimpf in an emailed statement.

FitzGerald and Pepper said they get questions about the issue while on the campaign trail, and many of those seeking elected office will have to address the topic.

“What are we supposed to say? ‘No comment,’?” FitzGerald said.

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