Ohio county seeks federal help to expand drug abuse battle


CLEVELAND (AP) — Ohio’s largest county is asking the federal government to waive rules that would make more publicly funded beds available for long-term drug treatment as it battles a growing epidemic of heroin and fentanyl abuse that has killed 200 people so far this year.

The Cuyahoga County executive released a letter sent last month to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that asks the agency to waive rules that limits Medicaid payments to only 16 beds in facilities that provide residential drug treatment.

Officials have predicted that the number of overdoses deaths attributed to heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two this year could double 2015’s total of 228. Cuyahoga County had 45 fatal heroin-fentanyl overdoses in May and 50 in in March. Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate far more potent than heroin, has become an increasingly bigger problem in Ohio the last few years as Mexican cartels have ramped up production and import of the drug.

A Cuyahoga County spokeswoman said Friday that HHS officials have agreed to work with the county to address the waiver issue.

William Denihan, chief executive officer of Cuyahoga County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, called the county’s heroin and fentanyl crisis a “tsunami” that will kill people in greater numbers unless they get the help they need. A waiver on Medicaid payments would immediately make available 35 additional beds for long-term treatment and as many as 120 more beds within six months, Denihan said.

Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, has about 400 residential drug treatment beds, Denihan said. About 175 are funded by the ADAMHS board. Only some of the remaining 225 or so beds are eligible for Medicaid reimbursement. Denihan said people seeking help for their addictions are sometimes told they must wait as long as four weeks before they can begin treatment.

“You wouldn’t say that to somebody with a broken arm,” Denihan said. “We lose many people because they go back on the streets and start using. This is a very critical situation.”

Cuyahoga County’s letter to HHS last month seeks more funding for the county medical examiner’s office, a public relations campaign on opiate abuse, programs to help addicts in jail and more law enforcement sweeps to diminish the supply of heroin and fentanyl.

Cleveland.com recently interviewed the father of an 18-year-old man who died last year after injecting heroin laced with fentanyl. Fred DiMarco, of North Olmstead, told the news site that his son, Nick, wanted heroin, not fentanyl, and whoever sold him the fatal dose of drugs should be tried for murder.

“There are no words in the human language to explain the pain and grief of losing a child,” DiMarco said.

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