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Despite Rise In Opioid Overdoses, Kasich Touts Progress

Gov. John Kasich talks about the latest official fatal overdose numbers from the Ohio Department of Health at a Statehouse press conference.
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio
Gov. John Kasich talks about the latest official fatal overdose numbers from the Ohio Department of Health at a Statehouse press conference.

The Ohio Health Department puts the official death toll last year from accidential drug overdoses at 4,854 people. That’s more than 13 people a day, and a 20 percent increase over 2016. However Gov. John Kasich says there is good news in those numbers.

The report says opioid related overdoses made up nearly 86 percent of all fatal drug deaths in Ohio last year. More than 7 in 10 drug deaths involved fentanyl – a 22 percent increase over 2016 and a nearly 4,000 percent increase over the last five years.

Fentanyl also caused a big rise in overdoses involving other drugs including cocaine and methamphetamine says Dr. Mark Hurst, who leads the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Drug Addiction Services.

“We also had a 39 percent increase in cocaine-related overdose deaths and a 130 increase in overdose deaths involving psychostimulants like methamphetamine," he said. "Many of those deaths also involved fentanyl and related drugs.”

These numbers aren’t far off from stats in the Columbus Dispatch reported this week, from reporters who analyzed figures from the Department of Health’s database.

The victims of fentanyl related overdoses, as they have been for the last four years, are overwhelmingly men between 25 and 54 years old. But the number of women who’ve died has been steadily growing.

And southwest Ohio continued to lead the state, with Montgomery County seeing the highest number of drug overdose deaths. Rural counties often had higher numbers than the state’s most populous counties.

The overdose numbers have grown every year Gov. John Kasich has been in office. Ohio continues to be one of top five states for opioid-related overdoses, but Kasich is not deterred.

“There is a perception, I may be incorrect about this, that somehow this problem of drug abuse in our state is raging out of control. That is simply not true," Kasich said.

Kasich said the numbers are showing that Ohio is beginning to win some battles in the war against opioids and other drugs.

“We have an eight-year low on prescribed opiate deaths - an eight-year low. What that means is, it’s not growing. It means that we’re winning. We’re starting to beat this down,” he said.

Kasich said he’s not trying to spin any data, pointing to a drop in opioid prescriptions for a fifth straight year, and a 28 percent fall in the number of opioids dispensed to Ohio patients – it went down to 225 million doses.

The governor also says there’s been an 88 percent drop in doctor shopping, and a nearly 5,000 percent increase in doctors and pharmacists using the statewide opioid reporting system called OARS.

“I’m beginning to hear from people around the country that they’re beginning to recognize that Ohio is a leader in this. Sometimes I wonder if in Ohio, we know what we’re doing – but we don’t report the accuracy of the fact that we’re winning,” he said.

Kasich credits his administration for prevention programs along with tougher guidelines on prescribers, stronger drug monitoring and new regulations on drug wholesalers.

He also said the drop in prescription painkillers will eventually kill demand for heroin and other opioid related drugs. In fact, he said the numbers show it already has had an effect.

“The increase in the deaths are related to street drugs," Kasich said. "So if it wasn’t what we were doing, the numbers would be higher. I don’t know what I can do to keep people from going and buying heroin on a street corner."

Kasich said of the $1 billion that he’s often brought up as being spent on the opioid crisis in the two-year budget, $600 million of that has been on treatment through Medicaid, which is mostly funded by federal dollars.

He’s urging the next governor to continue Medicaid expansion. Democrat Richard Cordray has committed to doing that, and Republican Mike DeWine has said he supports it with some changes such as work requirements and wellness incentives.