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Lawmakers call for action to address drug epidemic

By MARC KOVAC Dix Capital Bureau Published: October 14, 2016 10:00 AM

COLUMBUS -- Democratic lawmakers called for more action Wednesday to address the state's ongoing heroin and drug epidemic.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman) and four members of the Ohio House want movement on legislation dealing with addiction issues and an emergency declaration by Gov. John Kasich.

"Today two or three people in my community are going to die of an opiate overdose," said state Rep. Greta Johnson (D-Akron). " When I'm going door to door, when I'm at town hall meetings, this is all people are talking about. It's the No. 1 issue on their minds and they want answers, and right now I cannot look them in the eye and say Ohio is doing everything we can as a state to help you, because we are not."

The lawmakers offered the comments during a morning press conference at the Statehouse, a few hours before the Ohio Senate's first session since the chamber recessed in May. The Ohio House had a short session last month, mostly to seat new members replacing representatives who left their terms early.

Otherwise, the legislature isn't expected to be back in full-fledged session until after the November presidential election.

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State lawmakers have moved a number of bills related to prescription painkiller and heroin-related issues, including a bill that allowed access to naloxone without a prescription to friends and family members of addicts. Though the number of unintentional overdose deaths in the state is on the rise, state officials have said the overdose-reversal drug has kept that number from being even higher.

But Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday that they'd like to see more law changes moved, including SB 319, which passed the Senate on a unanimous vote just before lawmakers recessed for the summer.

The legislation includes language widening access to naloxone, with grant funding for county health departments that want to purchase supplies. The bill also would limit the amount of prescription opioids provided to a patient at one time, among other provisions.

"We're dealing with prescriptive authority, we're dealing with prescriptive limitations, we're dealing with the actual opiates that are being prescribed by doctors," Schiavoni said. "That's something that's really important I think the passage of SB 319 would be a good step in the right direction, alongside all of the resources that would be needed to be distributed throughout our communities"

Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) added, "Treatment providers, law enforcement and those on the front lines of this epidemic are working tirelessly right now to prevent more families from losing loved ones to opioid deaths but the legislature has to do its part as well. We have to act. Our family members can't wait for an election season to end."

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Democrats also called on the governor to declare an emergency, which they said would enable the release of additional funding for communities dealing with drug addiction issues.

Johnson said the governor has the authority to make the emergency declaration. State officials, she said, should have access to Ohio's rainy day fund to help local communities cover their costs.

"It's a rainy day fund," she said. "Well, there's a flood in Summit County. There's a flood in Hamilton County. There's a flood in the Valley and in Cuyahoga County as well We refuse to accept that our hands our tied. That's why we're here today."

A spokeswoman for Gov. John Kasich countered Johnson's assertion about emergency orders, however.

Emmalee Kalmbach offered in a released statement, "This has been a debate that Democrats have been pushing for more than a month now and despite their rhetoric no one has even hinted -- or pointed to -- where that authority might be. That's because they know -- or as lawmakers they should know -- that no legislature has ever given any Ohio governor that kind of authority."

She added that the administration has been focused on heroin and drug addiction issues and would continue to be.

"The governor is fully committed to working with our local partners to fight this battle and that means working together on proven solutions and proven tools," she said. "It also means focusing on tools that actually exist instead of engaging in unproductive, feel-good, lip-service like his detractors. Gov. Kasich is taking aggressive action to address this problem head-on In short, the governor is attacking this problem as the true emergency it is. Anyone who doubts this can check with stakeholders who are deeply committed to this ever-evolving drug epidemic."

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