Questions Linger Over Opioid Program Funds

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By Alex Ruoff

Lawmakers have agreed to spend billions fighting the opioid epidemic this year, but where those funds will go exactly remains unclear.

Appropriators want to steer much of the $3 billion expected to go toward opioid programs for the rest of the fiscal year toward state-run treatment and prevention programs. A bipartisan group of senators, however, wants to steer money directly to medication-assisted treatment programs, education programs meant to steer people away from drugs, and organizations that help pregnant woman who’ve used addictive substances.

The difference between the approaches is one would give states more discretion to direct the funds while another would target them toward specific programs. It’s possible the upcoming federal spending bill would include a mixture of the two, as lawmakers have done in the past, congressional aides told Bloomberg Law.

“It’s not just throwing money at a problem and hope it gets better,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the sponsors of a bill to add $1 billion in new funding for opioid programs, told Bloomberg Law. “It’s focusing on things that work.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters he believes states will have a lot of discretion over where the bulk of the opioid funds will go. He said he’s not sure what programs work best and wanted to leave it up to states to direct the funds.

A budget agreement signed into law in February granted Congress $6 billion for opioid programs for the next two years. Lawmakers on appropriations committees are now debating how to divvy up those funds.

Congress approved $267 million in grants in fiscal year 2017 directed toward specific drug treatment and prevention programs through the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Portman and a group of senators introduced a follow-up bill that would greatly expand that grant program.

Lawmakers also approved nearly $1 billion in state grants for opioid programs in 2017 and 2018.

Programs That Work

Those who run drug treatment programs and behavioral health specialists told Bloomberg Law there’s not agreement on what approach works best. They do agree more money is needed to tackle the opioid epidemic, which contributed to the nearly 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016.

West Virginia, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had the highest rate of overdose deaths in 2016, received $10.6 million in grants to boost treatment and prevention programs.

One of the main beneficiaries of that funding, West Virginia University, is trying to expand its medication-assisted treatment program to clinics around the state, James Berry, director of Comprehensive Opioid Addiction Treatment at the Chestnut Ridge Center in Morgantown, W.Va., told Bloomberg Law.

He cited success in Morgantown, with about half of those who come into the program staying in drug treatment in the short term and the majority of those remaining in treatment up to a year later.

“Addiction treatment is notorious for people dropping out, so we do what we can,” Berry said.

Berry wants to use the federal grants to help clinics around the state copy his model and develop relationships with therapists and social workers so they can quickly refer people they treat with substance abuse issues to a specialist and get them into drug treatment programs. He wants more hospitals to have the infrastructure in place to treat patients suffering from addiction and to push them into treatment programs.

However, Berry is unsure whether West Virginia saw fewer overdose deaths in 2017 or if the number will drop this year. He has seen more people die using powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl in recent years.

Ohio, which ranked second in overdose deaths in 2016, will spend more than $1 billion this year fighting the opioid epidemic, Eric R. Wandersleben, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, told Bloomberg Law.

The state has greatly expanded its medication-assisted treatment programs and given overdose-reversing drugs to police officers and doctors around the state, Cheri Walter, chief executive officer of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, told Bloomerg Law. However, the state still has a major deficit of drug treatment specialists.

Ohio is slated to receive more than $50 million in federal grants for its opioid programs, but Walter said that money can’t persuade treatment specialists to set up shop in the state.

“If the money comes in on a one-time basis, they have to worry about sustainability,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brian Broderick at

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