Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday that she wants to cut the number of Michigan’s opioid-related overdose deaths in half within five years, joining with other top state officials to outline several initiatives to combat the epidemic.
Her administration announced a $1 million advertising campaign to reduce the stigma associated with seeking treatment and a plan to no longer require Medicaid recipients to get prior insurance authorization from health plans to be prescribed medicines that treat opioid abuse starting Dec. 2.
Three prisons will pilot medication-assisted treatment — methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone — for inmates, more than 20 percent of whom have an opioid use disorder. And the state Department of Health and Human Services said it expanded the number of places where syringe service, or needle exchange, programs are offered.
The programs can reduce the prevalence of diseases, provide overdose-reversal medications and increase the odds that participants will access recovery services.
“It should not be easier to get an opioid prescription than it is to access treatment,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said during a news conference at the Forest Community Health Center in Lansing.
“Addiction is not a moral failing. Addiction is a disease,” Whitmer said. The good news, she said, is that it can be prevented and managed if is treated as a disease and if the stigma is eliminated.
The ad campaign will be the state’s first to directly address the stigma associated with people seeking treatment for addiction to prescription drugs or opioids such as heroin and illicitly made fentanyl. It will begin later this month and will include TV, radio, social media, online ads and billboards.
“People who feel shame and embarrassment about drug use are more likely to hide it. People who feel understanding and acceptance are more likely to get help,” said state Health and Human Services Department Director Robert Gordon.
In 2017, the last year for which data is available, there were 2,686 drug overdose deaths in Michigan, which was 13% more than the previous year. Of those 2,686 deaths, 2,053 were related to opioid overdoses, which was 15% more than in 2016.
The state has made some progress combatting the crisis.
A 2017 law that requires health providers and pharmacists to check a prescription database before prescribing painkillers and other powerful drugs is credited with helping to reduce the number of dispensed opioid prescriptions by 15% in 2018.
Whitmer said the goal of lowering the number of opioid-related deaths by 50% in the next five years is “absolutely doable. It will be tough. But we are up to this challenge, and the people of our state are expecting us to meet it.”