Congressman Michael Turner visited Fayette County community leaders Tuesday to give a speech where he called the federal government “just wrong,” and said he hopes to change gaps in treatment for those addicted to heroin.
Turner is the U.S. Representative for Montgomery, Greene, and Fayette counties in the 10th Congressional District of Ohio, an area with a population of over 700,000 community members in southwest Ohio.
He said he’s very lucky because of the Fayette County community.
“Your county has a significant leadership structure,” said Turner in a meeting with members of the Washington C.H. Rotary Club at the Crown Room Banquet Hall. “You have planned together how to make a difference and when somebody comes to our office, we have them tell us of the issues that are important to your community.”
The congressman said it’s being able to turn to the leadership of Fayette County that lets him know what they need to do to help Fayette County.
He spoke briefly of his first term after being elected to serve in Congress in 2003. He was down on the House floor, his voting card in hand, ready to cast a vote, and another congressman turned to him and asked, “How is it that you ascertain the needs of your community?”
“I couldn’t believe he had made it to the floor of the House and didn’t know how to figure out how to help his community…and sure enough that member didn’t stay very long,” said Turner, who pointed to the strong leadership and organizational skills of the local government who have been there to guide him through figuring out how to help the community he represents.
“The leadership structures are active on economic development, they’re active on social issues and they’re active in the philanthropic community. We’re a partnership and we’re a team and for that I want to thank you. You take time away from your families and your businesses to make sure you can make a difference in your community and that spirit of volunteerism continues to be something that makes a tremendous difference,” said Turner.
Turner said he has been working in Congress to address one of the issues important to the community, the heroin epidemic.
“It’s at an epidemic level. It is a surge that is affecting our community, both rural and urban, it is expressing itself in families that are torn apart, in babies that are being born in our hospitals who are addicted to heroin and certainly we see it in our judicial system,” said Turner.
He said he was made aware of a significant issue within the heroin epidemic itself that he thinks is important to address.
So important that he said he has created a bill and dropped it on Congress, where the congressional budget committee is poised over it, trying to understand what it is Turner is attempting to do.
And it’s no small feat. The congressman wants to change the way the federal government treats addicts when they become incarcerated. With 85 percent of people incarcerated suffering from some form of addiction, that sort of change could have a potential effect on 2 million of the nation’s inmates, according to data provided by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Turner said the first opportunity the community has to help somebody who has addiction is through the judicial system because addicts inevitably find themselves in a criminal situation, “either through stealing to try to maintain the habit, or some other social situation being presented to our police force and ultimately end up in jail.”
He said no one addicted to heroin wants to stay addicted to heroin.
So why do people stay addicted? Why are millions of people moving through the revolving door between addiction and incarceration?
Turner, backed by community leaders, said it’s an injustice in the current federal system.
“That is, the moment the individual becomes incarcerated, the federal benefit under Medicaid for drug treatment ceases,” said Turner.
He said the individual who is addicted to heroin prior to incarceration already has a federal benefit under Medicaid that would assist the community and the individual in being able to seek treatment and get off heroin. But when a person with an addiction enters jail, they are no longer eligible for that treatment.
And when they no longer have the treatment resources available to them to come out of the spiral of addiction, the cycle of addiction just doesn’t stop.
“When they enter into our judicial system and become incarcerated, it’s our first time where they’ve become away from the drug and we have an ability to intervene, to be able to provide them the assistance,” said Turner. “It’s at that time that our federal government then turns off the spigot and says, ‘No you can’t use the money for drug treatment’ but it’s a benefit the individual was entitled to just a day before they were incarcerated.”
He said at the end of their incarceration, by the time they are getting out of jail, if they have not had drug treatment, they will return back to the same social structure that they were in, and re-enter the same social situation that keeps them in the spiral of drug addiction.
Dan Dean, Fayette County Commissioner, said Tuesday the congressman has done a good job of working to improve this gap in treatment for addicts who become incarcerated.
“Once they are in the jail, they lose their benefits, so all medical costs fall back onto the county,” said Dean. “If you want to try to do some treatment program afterwards, it’s 30 days to get re-instated for Medicaid insurance, so there is that gap. Even if they want help as they leave the jail or want to go into another program to get treatment, there’s no money for that because of the gap.”
Turner said he first learned of that gap when he toured a local jail. Now he’s working in Congress to try to make certain that the federal government doesn’t turn off Medicaid funding for drug treatment when a person enters the judicial system. It’s called The Reforming and Expanding Access to Treatment (TREAT) act, and Turner introduced it as bi-partisan legislation in the house Nov. 18, 2015.
“It would be an opportunity for us to, in a meaningful way, change people’s lives. That of course has savings for us in the judicial system but more importantly savings of people and their lives,” said Turner.
He said the problem is that the bill is currently being looked at by the congressional budget committee as if it’s an entirely new program.
“The federal government actually counts savings during the time period that [addicts] can’t take advantage of their Medicaid benefits while they’re incarcerated. We need to end that mentality,” said Turner, emphasizing that it doesn’t save the federal government any money to stop treatment for addicts once they’re incarcerated. “It’s actually going to cost our overall society much more to have that benefit end.”
Godwin Apaliyah, Fayette County Economic Development Director from the Ohio State Extension Office, said he thinks the bill is important because it will strengthen the economy of the community.
“I think that this is very important for our community because there are companies here who are continuously hiring. The bill would help a lot—to find these people, make them come back to good shape, and see if we can have programs that can help them to grow their skills to go back into labor to support their communities,” said Apaliyah.
“I think it’s a very important idea,” said Apaliyah. “Hopefully, with others in D.C., this bill will get passed and help our communities.”
The congressman said he has hopes that the bill will gain momentum and get everyone on the same page.
“Treatment is the only intervention to save lives and we need to be partners with our local governments to be able to provide that sort of assistance,” said Turner.
He said he understands that the demand for treatment is so high but the options for people incarcerated are little or none.
Of the $74 billion spent annually on incarceration, less than 1 percent of that money is spent on treatment, according to CASAColumbia.
Turner said if Congress can work together to get it passed through the House and move it forward, it would make a big difference in communities suffering with heroin addiction.
“This should be a funding priority,” said Turner. “This is not new spending, and that overall, this results in savings to our communities, not additional costs.”
He said while he continues to advocate now for the bill in the House, he hopes it will ultimately be passed next year.
“Our best hope of changing the direction of someone’s life who is addicted to heroin is when they’re sitting in jail. We have the ability to both influence them and end the system, and that’s the one time our federal government cuts off the money, and that’s just wrong,” said Turner. “If we can save their life, save their family, that’s the time that we need to take action.”
Reach Ashley at the Record-Herald (740) 313-0355 or on Twitter @ashbunton