By Matt Hill
On November 14th, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the state’s goal of cutting overdose deaths by 50% in the next 5 years. Anyone who cares about this national crisis would agree that this aggressive goal is exactly what we need. We should be excited that there will be more resources directed toward combating the toll addiction takes on Michiganders everywhere.
I know I was reading the first part of the governor’s press release. After all, combating the state’s opioid crisis was a part of her campaign platform and it was good to see her making strides to fulfill those promises.
However, as I read through the rest of her press release, my optimism for a robust plan of action dropped considerably. In the release, the Whitmer plan outlined 4 major steps toward accomplishing her goals to cut opioid overdose deaths in half. The strategies included:
- A million-dollar, stigma-reduction focused, ad campaign
- Removing Medicaid pre-authorization requirements for specific
Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) drugs
- Implementing MAT programs in Michigan Department of
- Increased support for syringe exchange programs in the state
Don’t get me wrong, any increase in spending for combating substance use disorder (SUD) is a good step forward, but I can’t help to notice that these programs she outlined will not be enough to reach the overall goal she has set.
Reducing overdose deaths by half in 5 years will be a huge push. A push that our current treatment and recovery programs are not adequately funded enough to accomplish. Quite simply, the maximum impact potential of the strategies she outlined do not seem to align with the aggressiveness of her goal.
More specifically, a big focus of her plan revolves around increasing access and funding for MAT services. MAT can be a game changer when it comes to recovery. For some, it has been instrumental in finding and sustaining long-term recovery. However, MAT is not designed to be a standalone treatment. MAT relies on a full spectrum of wrap-around services to help a person really address their struggle with addiction. In our current climate, these SUD wrap-around services have historically, and are still currently, chronically underfunded. How can we expand MAT services when a key component to their success isn’t also expanded? Without supporting expansion of full spectrum recovery services, this push only focusing on MAT seems to be half-measure. To me it falls under “we are doing something to say we did something”.
Looking at the bigger picture, I also take issue with using overdose death rates as a measure of our success in combating an addiction epidemic. Don’t get me wrong, every death is one too many. But when I look at this crisis, its more than just looking at overdose deaths. It’s looking at all of the terrible effects SUD has on people and families across the country.
What happens when overdose death numbers start to decline? Does that automatically mean we are solving an addiction crisis? I get that trying to find a measure that more accurately describes our progress on tackling addiction is costly and time consuming, but falsely assuming things are getting better can un-do any progress made in reducing those numbers. The expansion in the number of people carrying naloxone along with other harm reduction practices can easily explain a decrease in overdose deaths. You cannot extrapolate those findings to say that people are no longer experiencing negative effects of SUD. Above all else, my biggest fear in using this statistic as a measure of overall success could very well mean that when overdose death rates start falling, funding for addiction services could be rolled back. In the long run, addiction resources will remain chronically underfunded and will leave our state vulnerable to whatever the next addiction crisis may be.
Despite the criticisms I have about this latest plan to address the opioid epidemic, there was a small mention of additional measures that remain to be seen. If there truly is more to come in terms of resources to help combat addiction, I hope they rise to the level of being able to tackle such a large issue. This is a perfect time for our Michigan recovery community to let our lawmakers know that these small steps are good, but nowhere near enough. We need to unite our voices and use our lived experience to let the governor know what an appropriate response to a crisis of this magnitude really looks like.