Whitmer aims to cut opioid-related deaths 50%

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration wants to cut the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in Michigan in half in the next five years, the governor said Thursday.

Whitmer called the goal "ambitious" but "doable" during a press conference where supporters laid out new initiatives to combat the opioid epidemic, including a $1 million media campaign.

"This is a crisis that's hurting families in every community across Michigan," Whitmer said. "And it's not going away unless we make real, concerted, meaningful steps to protect our families and those struggling with opioid use disorder."

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' chief medical executive, answers a reporter's questions after a Nov. 14, 2019, press conference to announce new steps to combat the opioid epidemic.

Opioids — prescription painkillers that include Vicodin and OxyContin — were involved in 2,053 drug overdose deaths in Michigan in 2017, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The total represented a 13.8% increase from 2016, according to the department.

Whitmer's administration laid out Thursday a series of new efforts aimed at taking on opioids.

Among them, the administration announced plans for a $1 million media campaign to "address the stigma associated with seeking opioid use disorder treatment." The campaign will be funded by federal grant money and will include TV, radio, billboard and social media advertisements.

The ads would launch during the week of Thanksgiving, Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said.

"We're asking for family members and peers of people with opioid use disorder to help us change the script about treatment and dispel the stigma around receiving recovery services for opioid misuse," Gordon said. "We want to change criticism to compassion; helplessness to hopefulness."

In addition, the state's health department will remove a requirement that Medicaid recipients get prior authorization before receiving specific medications used to treat opioid use disorder. Prior authorization is a requirement that physicians must obtain approval from a patient's insurer before prescribing medications, according to the department.

The change will increase the availability of treatment and people's chances of recovery, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive.

Dr. Cara Poland, who specializes in addiction medicine at Spectrum Health, said her brother suffered from an alcohol use disorder and she eventually lost him to the "disease of addiction."

"I will always wonder if he had easily accessible medication available to him if he would still be alive," Poland said Thursday

"We all have our stories. We all have been affected by the disease of substance use."

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services will expand support for syringe service programs, and the Michigan Department of Corrections will launch medication assisted treatment programs in three of its facilities. They are Central Michigan Correctional Facility, Carson City Correctional Facility and Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center in Jackson, according to a press release.

The treatment programs will help offenders reach long-term recovery, according to the administration.

Funding for the new initiatives would come from a combination of state dollars, federal dollars and private philanthropy, Khaldun said.

Republicans have recently criticized Whitmer for vetoing a $750,000 allocation to an opioid transitional housing program as part of nearly $1 billion in vetoes to the GOP-controlled Legislature's budget. Asked about the veto, Gordon said there were gaps in opioid funding in the Legislature's budget that the Whitmer administration filled by making administrative transfers.

"I think the overall story is this is an area where the federal government recognizes the gravity of the need and provides significant resources," he added.

In August, Whitmer started a task force on opioids that plans to conduct regional town hall meetings.