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Health and Medicine


Advocates warn Ohio pols: Don't play politics with mental health
Changes in funding raise concerns even while the governor won praise
by WKSU's STATEHOUSE BUREAU CHIEF KAREN KASLER


Reporter
Karen Kasler
 
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has lauded the state's commitment to mental health and addiction services. But some shifts in funding have advocates concerned.
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In The Region:

Programs that help people break addictions to drugs are often promoted by politicians. But sometimes those publicly funded programs are also cut by elected officials. As Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports, that’s brought a warning from advocates for those programs to candidates on the ballot this year.

LISTEN: Concern about cuts

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The state says it will send out a $63 million federal block grant for local drug addiction programs over 18 months instead of 12. The Department of Mental Health and Drug Addiction Services says spreading the money out over a longer period of time will bring some stability to cash-strapped agencies waiting for federal money that’s been approved to arrive.

But it will also create a $20 million temporary shortfall. Democrats looking for traction in this election year have seized on this, saying it’s a disaster during a statewide heroin crisis. 

Shared concern for mental health, but ...
“It’s the wrong direction,” says  David Pepper , who’s running for attorney general “We should be going in a different direction. And I don’t want to over-dramatize it, but I honestly believe that we will see more people addicted in the end, more lives ruined because of this decision if it’s not averted.”

Local advocates for mental health and drug addiction programs are concerned about the change and the gap that will result, though many have praised Republican Gov. John Kasich for his interest and financial commitment to those causes. And he’s also praised himself and state lawmakers – as he did in his State of the State speech in February. 

“We should be proud that we’re making a difference here, because it’s so easy in politics to run over them, because they don’t organize and many don’t vote. Many do, but some can’t. So we should be proud that we have been standing up for them.”

A key difference
But the advocates who’ve lauded Kasich and state lawmakers for supporting drug addiction and mental health services are now cautioning them to be careful with the issue during their campaigns. Jon Allison, a former top aide to Republican Gov. Bob Taft, represents the Drug Free Action Alliance. He sent out a letter signed by the heads of groups representing the mentally ill and low-income people, as well as doctors and drug addiction and mental health services. The letters went to the candidates for the five statewide executive offices and for the General Assembly. 

“I think there’s a difference between talking about policy options and trying to build consensus and taking pot shots, which can happen – and candidates from both parties have done this in the past.”

But Allison falters a bit when asked whether politicians running for office should avoid not only pointing fingers – but also taking credit. 
“I think when there’s good news, when there are good news stories, we ought to be telling those stories because I think those inspire hope and encourage people to come together and find bipartisan solutions, and I think that will continue to happen.”

And Democratic candidate for Governor Ed FitzGerald says the conversation about helping people with drug addictions and mental health concerns can’t stop now. 
“We can’t go in any county and not be asked about this question. What are we supposed to say – ‘no comment’? And what are we supposed to do when agencies from counties both that we live in that we are seeking to represent are saying, ‘These cuts are going to be devastating’?”

Statewide advocacy groups say they support the long-term budgeting change, though local agencies say the $20 million shortfall will create hardships. And the state says the Medicaid expansion that Kasich pushed through last year – over the objections of many Republican state lawmakers – will help with the gap.

 

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