Area health official, on Affordable Care Act replacement: 'People are going to die'

Rule Sheet at Sober Living Home in Cleveland
Rule Sheet at Sober Living Home in Cleveland

 The GOP-backed healthcare bill to replace the Affordable Care Act would be "catastrophic" to those with mental health or drug addiction problems, local experts say.

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - "Basically, bottom line, it's not going to save lives. People are going to die," said William Denihan, CEO of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Board of Cuyahoga County.

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, made insurance cover addiction and mental health services and expanded Medicaid. The expansion of Medicaid meant 700,000 more Ohioans got insurance, nearly 1/3 of those having drug addiction or mental health issues.

The ACA expansion meant a family of four making $33,948 would receive Medicaid insurance. Previously, a family of four would only qualify by making $24,600 or less.

The Republican-backed replacement to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, would roll back the Medicaid expansion, something both of Ohio's U.S. senators and Gov. John Kasich have expressed concern about -- especially for those with addiction issues or mental illness. Locally, Denihan said less Medicaid funding would mean fewer services.

"I think it could be catastrophic, at least for the individuals who are already in treatment and those who would have gone through treatment if this bill had passed," said Denihan.  "It would be very bad for Ohio. We're in the business of saving lives not putting them in danger and that's exactly what we'd be doing."

The Medicaid expansion means that more recovery services were covered by Medicaid, and the Cuyahoga County board was able to take $6 million they would have had to use for treatment and put towards recovery housing, sober housing, job training, peer support, and emergency services.

Jeff Knight runs several sober living homes. He is a part of one of the board's pilot programs that pay for the first three months of sober living for men going through recovery after they've gone through rehab.

"It's just that last place, that last -- I don't want to say last because recovery is never over - but get that camaraderie and stay in that healthy environment," said Knight. "If they get out of a treatment center and they move into a place they can still focus on recovery rather than how can I make my rent payment."

Knight said programs like his provide structure for recovering addicts and retrain them on how to live like a responsible adult. The goal, he said, is to get and stay sober and become a productive member of society. He said rolling back the Medicaid expansion would mean less help for people who need it most.

"There's already all these deaths, and we have all these services. So to take these services away are just going to put these people back on the streets, and when people that are addicts and alcoholics go back on the streets we do what we know what to do, and that is shoot angles get high and get drunk and the cycle repeats," said Knight. "I don't know the political stuff behind it very much but I know it's doing a lot more good than anything that was tried before. If it's working, why pull the plug on it? I don't understand if it's literally saving people's lives."

One of those lives saved? James Betley. The 25-year-old said he's been addicted to something for nearly 1/4 of his life. He said four months ago he decided to get help and to get off heroin. He said it's something he wouldn't have been able to do, or afford, without expanded Medicaid.

"It really saved my life. I'm lucky I'm not dead already," said Betley.

Betley waited for two weeks to get into a detox program. That wait time would likely increase, Denihan said, if Medicaid assistance goes away.

"For somebody that's addicted to heroin or something, we barely even have a day to wait you know, any day could be our last it's really like playing Russian roulette," said Betley.

Betley made it through detox, rehab and now lives in a house run by Knight. The home has a little bit of extra structure, like random drug and alcohol testing and a requirement that resident attend at least four self help meetings each week. His first three months were paid for by the county board, said Knight.

"It helps tremendously to be in a house like this where you have a little structure," said Betley. "You know, we use it as a means to better ourselves and the support that I got when I came into this house I've never had friend like this in my life."

He said that he implores people who are currently struggling with addiction issues to get help, telling us it's never too late. He also had this message for people who feel that they wouldn't be affected by any of the changes to Medicaid.

"Just try to be open minded about it and have a heart, because so many people suffer every day, so many families suffer and just getting them off of it will help clean the streets up. It definitely helps more than the people themselves," said Betley. "Just find it your heart to help us, because we need it, we really do, our lives depend on it."

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