Michigan gets $10M for opioid battle as Whitmer, Bloomberg unveil effort

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Eastpointe — Stressing that opioid addiction is "not a moral failing; it's a disease," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer officially announced a $10 million grant Thursday from Bloomberg Philanthropies to help combat the crisis in Michigan.

Appearing with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg at the Eastpointe Fire & Rescue building, the governor said that "we should all be grateful" that Michigan is the second state chosen to take part in a $50 million initiative designed to create a blueprint and apply it nationwide.

Noting a drastic rise in in-state opioid deaths, she said the epidemic "has deprived children of their parents, and parents of their children."

With a red ladder truck behind him and a line of firefighters and paramedics along the wall to his left, Bloomberg told a gathering of elected officials and community activists that "we have to act boldly, and we have to act now."

"You can show up and save their lives sometimes," he said to the first responders, but they can't provide education or attack the problem at its roots.

In November, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a partnership between Vital Strategies, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the CDC Foundation. It aims to help up to 10 states over the next three years find ways to boost prevention and treatment efforts for opioid addiction.

Former City of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, center, answers a reporter's question Thursday as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Robert Gordon of the state's Department of Health and Human Services, and Eastpointe Deputy Fire Chief Nick Sage join Bloomberg at the Eastpointe Fire Department to announce Bloomberg Philanthropies has committed $10 million to help Michigan tackle the opioid crisis.

Bloomberg and Whitmer revealed the expansion to Michigan in a guest opinion piece in The Detroit News Thursday.

Pennsylvania is the first state to participate in the initiative and will receive at least $10 million in funding to reduce opioid deaths, according to the group that is led by Bloomberg and works in more than 120 countries.

At the firehouse, Bloomberg said Michigan came next because of the scale of the state's problem, and because Whitmer "is committed to making this a priority."

CDC data shows there were more than 47,000 deaths from opioid overdoses nationwide in 2017.

Michigan's inclusion comes amid a sharp rise in fatalities, in Detroit and elsewhere. In 2016, Detroit's overdoses accounted for nearly 40 percent of the 538 opioid-related deaths in Wayne County. In total, 1,786 Michigan residents died that year from opioid overdoses, state figures show.

The number of opioid-related deaths in Detroit has climbed from 46 in 2012 to 280 in 2017, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

The state in October reported a new record: 1,941 of the 2,729 overdose deaths in 2017 were opioid-related.

The initiative follows legislation signed by President Donald Trump in October that adds treatment options and gets the U.S. Postal Service to screen overseas packages for a synthetic form of opioids called fentanyl that are being shipped largely from China.

Bloomberg acknowledged the legislation, but said that otherwise, "the White House has done nothing to combat the opioid epidemic."

The program announced in Eastpointe includes no data or specifics, said Robert Gordon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Rather, it's designed to find them.

"It's an approach built on prevention — on reaching people before addiction takes hold," said Gordon, speaking after Bloomberg.

Among those attending the announcement was Eastpointe Mayor Suzanne Pixley, who said opioids are a growing problem not only in her city but throughout Macomb County. She said she knows of three churches that have trained parishioners in the use of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.

One of those is the First Baptist Church of Eastpointe, whose pastor, James Friedman, is chaplain to the city's police department. Dressed in full uniform, with a sidearm, he said he had naloxone in the duty bag in his car.

"Unfortunately, civilians have to be taught this," Friedman said. "I look at it like CPR training."

Roseville firefighter Scott Bala, president of his department's union local, said his station sometimes handles more overdoses than burning structures.

The overdose runs are more difficult than common fires, he said, "because you're seeing the human toll."

"We're seeing repeat offenders. We know the address," Bala said. "This isn't the old image of addicts sitting around in gutters. It's moms and dads, oftentimes with kids at home."

Ryan McLeod, superintendent of Eastpointe Community Schools, told of one of those families, with a student who made Thursday's announcement seem personal.

"I had a kid in middle school doing everything he could to get suspended," McLeod said.

It turned out the boy wanted to be home to take care of an opioid-addicted parent. Any time he was at school, he was afraid he'd come home and find his father dead."