Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants the state to meet the “ambitious goal” of cutting opioid-related deaths by half over the next five years.
To do so, Whitmer’s Michigan Opioids Task Force, created in August via executive order, plans to focus on three main components: preventing opioid misuse, ensuring individuals using opioids can access high-quality recovery treatment and reducing harm.
These initiatives were unveiled on Thursday and will include a $1 million media campaign aimed at reducing the stigma associated with addiction, increasing access to treatment and expanding medication-assisted treatment in Michigan prisons, according to a statement from the state.
“Addiction is not a moral failing; it is a disease,” Whitmer said at a news conference at a community health center on Lansing’s south side. “It is a chronic disease that the good news is, can be prevented … if we treat it as such and eliminate the stigma that has been attached to it.”
The task force is being chaired by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and includes representatives from the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Department of Corrections (DOC), and several other state departments.
The administration is also working closely with other stakeholder groups like the Grand Rapids Red Project, a nonprofit that focuses on access to clean syringes, overdose prevention and other harm reduction efforts.
“This [work] is all hands on deck because it has to be,” Whitmer said of the large makeup of the task force.
In 2017, Michigan saw more than 2,000 deaths related to opioids and more than 7,000 people have died in the last five years, according to figures from DHHS.
Steve Alsum, executive director of the Grand Rapids Red Project, said that the nonprofit’s programs like access to clean syringes and distribution of Naloxone — a medication which helps fight opioid overdoses — have paid dividends in Kent County and could be replicated statewide.
Red Project, Alsum said, has run its syringe access program for almost 20 years. When it began, one-quarter of HIV and AIDS cases were related to injection drug use. That has since dropped to 8%, he said.
“The success is repeated pretty much anywhere a syringe access program operates for a sustained period of time,” Alsum said.
Funding for the various initiatives of the opioids task force comes from a mix of federal funds and grants, including $10 million the state received from Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charity connected to billionaire media mogul, former New York City mayor and now Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.
As part of her veto-spree last month of the state’s 2020 Fiscal Year budget, Whitmer axed boilerplate language for two opioid-related budget items, totaling $1.2 million, according to a document from the governor’s office.
DHHS Director Robert Gordon said Thursday that the Legislature in its proposed budget had “gaps” for opioid efforts, but the governor was largely able to take care of those through administrative transfers.
Ultimately, Gordon said that the magnitude of the opioid fight requires far more than just state resources.
“I think the overall story is this is an area where the federal government recognizes the gravity of the need and provides significant resources,” Gordon said.
“I think we need to continue getting the federal funding we’re getting,” Gordon told the Advance on Thursday. “Candidly, our department has significant aggregate issues on its funding levels. It’s part of the challenge with the [state] budget we have right now. I think for us to function adequately in any area, it would be helpful to have adequate resources.”