Ohio Democratic candidates criticize Gov. John Kasich, Republican administration for drug policy (VIDEO)

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus -- Two Democratic candidates for statewide office are urging Gov. John Kasich and his Republican administration to reverse course on a decision they say will cost local agencies an estimated $20 million in funding for drug addiction services.

Gubernatorial hopeful Ed FitzGerald and attorney general candidate David Pepper said the GOP-controlled legislature and the governor should consider other budgeting options to cover the projected shortfall, stemming from a change in the timing of federal grant disbursements.

"As opposed to … adding more treatment that is so desperately needed and despite … a lot of town hall meetings and rhetoric about how about how our state leaders think this is a crisis, the state has actually come up with a way to dramatically reduce treatment," Pepper told reporters during a press conference on the steps of the Statehouse May 29. "All 88 counties, agencies across the state, will about a month from now suffer about a 30 percent cut in their ability to provide the treatment they're currently providing."

At issue is a budgeting change adopted by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in an attempt to align state and federal disbursements.

Federal grant funds for addiction services often aren't forwarded to the state until months after state payments to local agencies are made. The state has covered the resulting shortfall in the past by shifting funds within agency budgets and temporarily advancing money for the addiction services grants.

The state agency's new approach is to spread $63 million in federal allotments over six quarters instead of four, a move that state officials say will bring Ohio's budget timetables in line with when the federal governments provides its payments.

"… Counties will still get their full distribution," Eric R. Wandersleben, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said in an email message. "It'll just be stretched over six quarters this one time to allow us to align the distribution process. By bringing everything into alignment, providers will be able to base planning around a regular, predictable distribution schedule."

State officials also say other state policy moves will provide additional funding to help local agencies during the interim, including $3 million included in a mid-biennium budget bill that is awaiting final lawmaker action and $557 million-plus in funding for physical and behavioral health services as a result of the state's Medicaid expansion.

But FitzGerald called the budgeting maneuver "an incredibly foolish decision. … There's a $20 million real cut that local governments are going to be experiencing, and that is going to directly translate into fewer people getting treatment."

"We're in the middle of a crisis," Pepper added. "This state has to be able to find solutions to budget problems without putting it on the backs of those providing treatment and those receiving treatment."

Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, called such comments "tone deaf at best and ghoulish at worst."

He added in a released statement, "The governor has been the single greatest advocate for this issue in recent memory and has been recognized nationally for his work … As the governor and attorney general are seeking results, their opponents are just seeking attention. Not only is FitzGerald's politicization of this issue sad, but the fact that he wants more money for government and not for the people who are suffering shows his values are wildly out of touch with Ohioans."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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