Watchdog10: Millions Spent On Taxi Rides For Addicts

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A two month Watchdog 10 investigation uncovered that the state of Ohio is spending millions of dollars for rides for drug addicts.

More than 29,000 Ohioans were treated last year for an addiction to opiates, which include everything from prescription painkillers to heroin. Many of them have no job, no car, and virtually no way to get to treatment – unless they are on Medicaid. Then, they get a free ride.

Each morning at CompDrug in Columbus, more than a thousand people addicted to opiates arrive to receive their daily dose of the life-saving drug Methadone.

Experts say Methadone, plus psychosocial treatment, offers addicts the best chance of beating the addiction - whether they're hooked on painkillers or heroin.

"What Methadone is, is for individuals who have a long history - high tolerance,” said Dustin Mets, CompDrug CEO.

Mets said 90 percent of his clients come from Franklin County, but he says opiate addiction is not just an urban problem anymore.  

"The disadvantage is that the rural setting is not necessarily conducive to opiate treatment.  So, we do have more people coming in from surrounding areas where there are no treatment centers,” added Mets.

In fact, CompDrug is one of just 12 Methadone clinics in the state, each located in a big city. So for opiate addicts who live outside the city, help is difficult to get.

Like most communities in Ohio, Athens doesn't have a clinic where opiate patients can go to get methadone treatments.  The closest clinic is 75 miles away in Columbus.

Addicts on Medicaid, who do not have transportation to get to Columbus, can get a free ride every day - thanks to Ohio taxpayers.

Kris Collins contacted Watchdog 10 after learning that Medicaid pays for the rides.

"It's a waste of taxpayers’ money, and I don't like it being wasted like this,” said Collins.

Watchdog 10 started digging and discovered something called Non Emergency Transportation or NET.

If a poor patient needs a ride to the doctor, Medicaid will pay for it.

Ohio spent $53 million last year driving people to medical appointments.

The state said it does not know how much of those funds were used for trips to drug treatment centers, like CompDrug.

While the state cannot provide a dollar amount, 10TV tracked many patients arriving by cab and transit vehicles. That's not cheap.

Over the past two months, 10TV watched cabs bring patients from all over Franklin County.  Sometimes it was just a few miles to and from a patient's home.  

Other times, Watchdog 10 followed cabs and other transit vehicles, to other counties.  One trip included a 44 mile ride from Columbus to Cardington in Morrow County.  

On another day, 10TV followed a van back to Vinton County.  That was a trip of 93 miles - just one way.  And taxpayers picked up the tab which was $418.50 - for one patient, from one county.

“It's just not a good investment for taxpayers the way it's structured now,” said Jack Frech, direct of Athens County Department of Job & Family Services.

To save money, Frech’s agency contracts with senior volunteers to drive addicts to Columbus each day.  But even that adds up - as much as $11,000 per person per year.

"That's very expensive.  I mean that's thousands and thousands of dollars being spent for that particular individual.  And, I'd be the first to say we would prefer to have those treatments available here and not have to do that,” added Frech.

But the dispensing of methadone is highly-regulated. Methadone clinics must have a special license and deal with complicated federal and state rules, making it too costly for many rural areas.  The only option is shipping addicts to big city clinics each day.

"On the other hand, you look at this and you think, 'Well, the other option would be to simply not provide the treatment.' So, then essentially you have a drug addict. You know, well, what's the cost of that?  Well, $28,000 a year if you're going to put them in prison,” said Frech.

Mets agrees treatment is always cheaper than prison.

"Do we keep people in treatment because it's the medically appropriate thing to do, or do we put them back out there and then pay the cost someplace else?" said Mets.

For Mets and Frech, the answer is simple. The cost of the transportation should continue to be covered by the taxpayers.

With thousands of addicted Ohioans, many of whom are too poor to own a car, being given free rides to get clean and costing millions of dollars a year.

"It begs the policy question.  ‘Well, ok, then is this too expensive?’  Do we say because that is too expensive, therefore you don't get methadone treatment you can stay a drug addict?  I think that's exactly the policy questions the public needs to be having.  Exactly,” said Frech.

Vinton County spent $124,755 in 2012 to transport people to methadone clinics. During that same time period, Fayette County spent $97,425. That’s a quarter of a million from just two of Ohio’s 88 counties.

The State of Ohio says $53 million was spent driving people to all medical appointments.

When Watchdog 10 asked how much of that was driving opiate addicts to their appointments, nobody could give the number. Officials also declined a request for an interview.

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