August 5, 2008

How State Battles Cost of Addiction

By Nolan Clay and Randy Ellis, The Oklahoman

Aug. 5--How much do addictions cost?

In Oklahoma alone, the cost may reach as much as $5.8 billion a year.

That's billion, with a "b."

That's as much as it cost three years ago to run Oklahoma's entire state government.

The total in Oklahoma includes about $1.4 billion in direct costs for money spent trying to prevent addiction, treating addicts and locking up people who commit crimes because of addictions, according to a 2005 state task force report.

Another $4.4 billion goes for indirect costs for such things as the financial loss to society from premature deaths, imprisonment and school dropouts, the report said.

Addictions contribute to tragedies every day in Oklahoma as addicted children steal from their parents and addicted adults beat and neglect their children.

Drug and alcohol addiction contributes to 85 percent of all homicides, 80 percent of all prison incarcerations, 75 percent of all divorces, 65 percent of all child abuse cases, 55 percent of all domestic assaults, 50 percent of all traffic fatalities, 35 percent of all rapes and 33 percent of all suicides, according to the state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department.

In Oklahoma, the war against substance abuse and gambling addiction is waged by about 190 organizations. They have names like A Chance to Change and House of Hope Inc. About 100 get taxpayers dollars through the Mental Health Department.

Overall, last fiscal year, the Mental Health Department spent more than $59 million in state and federal funds fighting substance abuse.

Officials say drug courts are among the successes that have come from their fight.

Still, they say the current funding is not enough.

"I'd like for that to double," said Caletta McPherson, deputy commissioner for substance abuse services at the Mental Health Department. "There are gaps in substance abuse services statewide that I'd like to see us be able to fill. ... We need beds in all parts of the state for residential services, for adolescents and adults."

Addiction can start early The Mental Health Department in 2006 estimated 250,000 adult Oklahomans and 31,640 youths needed treatment for alcoholism, drugs or both.

Yet, fewer than 20,000 people actually received substance abuse services through the Mental Health Department in one recent fiscal year.

Officials say some people don't seek treatment because of a stigma against addiction. Addicts are afraid they will be fired.

"There's a feeling of discrimination when it comes to this particular disease of addiction," McPherson said. "Jobs, housing, relationships."

These days, children often begin using drugs and alcohol at ages 13 or 14, as opposed to 17 or 18 a generation ago, said Mike Boss, a counselor at Oklahoma Outreach, which specializes in the treatment of adolescents.

By the time they reach high school, children can find themselves locked in a life-and-death struggle with addiction.

"We lose kids every year," Boss said. "It's really a sad state of affairs. There are very few opportunities for young people to get treatment. ... The state of Oklahoma really should be ashamed."

For poor people seeking treatment, the outlook is particularly bleak, said Corrections Department Director Justin Jones, who estimates 70 to 80 percent of the more than 25,000 men and women locked up in state prisons are there in part because of substance abuse.

"I think in Oklahoma there's not a lot of opportunity for that initial intervention," Jones said. "You've got somebody on drugs. You've got somebody who is being difficult. The district attorney has seen them several times and they may have had a chance for probation, but there's no treatment available because most of our offenders are indigents and they can't afford to go out and pay for treatment.

"So they get on waiting lists for treatment programs and some of those waiting lists are years long. ... And so, as a last resort, it's like 'Let's sentence them to prison where they're going to get treatment.' Well, the problem is they probably only have a one in five chance of getting treatment in the prison system because of no funding."

The state could easily spend another $10 million on drug treatment in the state prison system if funds were available, Jones said.

Spending money on addiction treatment -- both inside and outside the prison system -- is money well spent because it decreases the likelihood a person will commit another crime and end up back in prison, Jones said.

It costs about $18,000 a year to lock someone up, so it's cheaper to treat the addiction and it makes for better lives, as well, he said.


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