Oklahoma was one of the country’s biggest abusers of prescription medications last year, news that comes after several years of budget cuts that have reduced state treatment programs.
Dramatic TV news coverage can make it look like methamphetamine is Oklahoma’s biggest drug problem. But Terri White, Commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, says that’s never really been the case.
“When you look at the number one drug that people identify as their number one issue, it’s still alcohol,” White says. “So, second behind that, we have marijuana and methamphetamine, which often tie for number two and number three. So, methamphetamine is still a significant issue in our state, as is marijuana use.”
And there’s a new culprit quickly making up ground.
“But coming up very quickly and growing everyday is our number four, which is prescription drugs. And so, that is growing at a faster rate,” White says.
But battling these issues takes money, and over the last several years, the agency has seen cuts both in both federal block grants and state appropriations. It received more than $87 million for substance abuse in 2008, before the economic crisis. For 2012, that number is closer to $69 million.
“$35 million being ripped out of a system that’s already under funded is really a horrid situation for the State of Oklahoma.”
-Terri White, Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
“This agency has lost about 35-million dollars over the last four years,” White says. “$35 million being ripped out of a system that’s already under funded is really a horrid situation for the State of Oklahoma.”
And White says cuts directly affect the number of people who can be helped by treatment facilities that rely on state funding.
“For example, on any give day already had between 500 and 600 Oklahomans on a waiting list who needed substance abuse treatment, who’d actually made the step to ask for treatment, and every bed in the state was full,” she says. “That number’s gone now, and instead of being between 500 and 600 on any given day, it’s now between 600 and 900 on any given day.”
About 50 of those beds are being occupied by residents of Catalyst Behavior Services in Oklahoma City, an in-patient treatment center that’s often the last resort for those who can’t afford and are unable to receive treatment at a fully private program.
“I’d been an addict for over a decade,” says Kathleen Beeman, a resident at Catalyst. “I started out using pain medication, opiate pain medication, and it led me to heroin eventually.”
Beeman has been at Catalyst for seven months and will be allowed to stay a full year.
“My life was destroyed by it,” she says. “And I called for days and days to get in here, and there’s a long waiting list to get in here — to get into any rehab, but I got in and it’s been very helpful to me. I’ve got the tools to stay sober the rest of my life.”
But Catalyst is providing those tools on a shoestring budget, says Director Mike Covington.
“We get $74 a day per client. That’ll tell you how low that is. That’s really low,” he says. “Considering all the services we provide and all the salaries. And as cost of living has gone up the last three or four years, with the budget, our payment has not gone up.”
With an improving state budget outlook, Commissioner White expects about $6 million more to work with starting next fiscal year. But her agency will still just be playing catch-up.
This story is part of “State of Addiction,” a collaborative series with non-profit journalism outfit Oklahoma Watch.