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Heroin Crisis Ups Demand For Treatment As Program Funding Is Cut


We have a story this morning of one state's response to a crisis. That crisis is heroin addiction. This country faces a stunning increase in the number of heroin-related deaths. One of the hardest-hit places is the city of Chicago, Ill., and that makes it striking that Illinois has not joined a nationwide effort to boost funding for heroin treatment. In fact, Illinois is cutting funding. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Forty-seven-year-old Myron Boyd describes his addiction to heroin in stark terms.

MYRON BOYD: It's a monster, you know. It's something that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

SCHAPER: That monster, Boyd says, stalked him, haunted him, and held him firmly in its grip.

BOYD: You're doing things that's out of character, you know. You're truly hurting yourself and people that's close to you, that really care about you. You're making horrible decisions. You know, you're not able to cope on a daily basis.

SCHAPER: The cravings for the opiate, he says, are painful. Withdrawal from heroin made him so sick that the only relief was using more. And because of that, Boyd says, many users rob and steal to score heroin and keep feeding their addiction.

BOYD: You know, try to battle this thing by yourself, it's impossible.

SCHAPER: But when Myron Boyd decided he needed help and wanted to get into treatment, he had to wait and wait. State funding cuts to treatment programs forced Boyd to wait three months before getting into a recovery program.

BOYD: That was a little nerve-racking, you know. You're anxious to get some help, you're anxious to get in treatment, and you're trying to make it, you know, day to day until your number comes up.

KATE MAHONEY: Some people die. I mean, there are people that die waiting to get into addiction treatment programs.

SCHAPER: Kate Mahoney is executive director of PEER Services, a substance abuse treatment and prevention center in Chicago's northern suburbs. She says Boyd was lucky to get in when he did because PEER now has a five-month-long waiting list.

MAHONEY: It is at an epidemic proportion. I've been working with heroin addiction for 32 years, I've never seen it at the level that we see it now in 2015.

SCHAPER: Nationwide, the number of heroin overdose deaths has quadrupled over the last decade. And heroin is increasingly the reason why people seek drug addiction treatment. The problem is particularly bad in the Chicago area, which leads the nation in the number of heroin-related emergency room visits. And a new study by researchers at the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Chicago's Roosevelt University finds that 35 percent of those admitted to state-funded substance abuse treatment programs in Illinois are going in for heroin addiction. That's more than twice the national average. At the same time, the Roosevelt study finds Illinois is cutting funding for substance abuse treatment.

KATHIE KANE-WILLIS: We're pretty much doing everything wrong in the midst of a heroin crisis.

SCHAPER: Consortium director Kathie Kane-Willis says Illinois has cut spending on addiction treatment more than 30 percent since 2007, leaving the state third from the bottom, ahead of only Texas and Tennessee in per capita funding for addiction treatment.

KANE-WILLIS: We are seeing an increase in demand for treatment, an increase in heroin use and addiction, and we have a public health crisis. And at the same time, we've cut our treatment capacity and cut funding.

SCHAPER: And Kane-Willis says Illinois' next budget will likely cut funding for treatment even more, which she says is the opposite of what most other states are doing in response to the heroin crisis. Federal funding to treat heroin addiction is increasing, too. Mark Parrino of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence says across the country, there is a growing recognition of the significant public costs when addicts don't get treatment.

MARK PARRINO: It's not as if they disappear from the planet. They're in emergency rooms with opioid-related overdoses. They are in jails or prisons.

SCHAPER: One way Illinois could boost treatment is if Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the Heroin Crisis Act, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support. Among other things, it would allow the state's Medicaid program to cover heroin addiction medications and treatment. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.