“The grip of this epidemic is not identical in every state, but it is everywhere.”

Portman talks about the fight against opioid abuse and other challenges facing Ohio, including the need for higher wages and affordable health care

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Rob Portman appeared before a breakfast meeting of The Ripon Society yesterday morning, delivering a speech about some of the key challenges facing the people he represents in his home state of Ohio and his efforts to address these challenges in the United States Senate.

The first challenge Portman talked about was providing people with better wages – something, he said, that can be accomplished by reforming the tax code in a way that puts the interests of the American worker first.  “Seventy percent of the benefits of a pro-growth tax reform along the lines of what’s being talked about will go to workers in terms of better salaries and better benefits,” he stated.

“I think the number one challenge today in our economy — and .7 percent growth in the first quarter is a scary number — is the fact that we’re not seeing an increase in compensation… Yet we’re seeing an increase in expenses, especially health care, but also education expenses, which are actually growing faster than health care. The single largest expense, of course, is health care for most people I represent.

“This is an opportunity to actually do the thing that we talk about as Republicans and Democrats.  Republicans don’t talk about it as much as they should in my view — which is how to get this economy moving in a broad sense, but specifically how to get wages growing again so that people feel like they do have an opportunity for themselves and their kids to achieve their dream, whatever it is.

“When you ask people — ‘Do you think your kids are going to be better off then you?’ — the answer has always been ‘yes.’   It’s not now.  A lot of it relates to what I call the middle class squeeze — the notion that you can’t get ahead.  Tax reform is not the silver bullet to solve all problems. But it certainly is one that will make a huge impact if we get it right.”

The second challenge Portman talked about was reforming the nation’s health care system in a way that controls costs and puts the interests of patients first.

“The House bill passed with a lot of late night arm twisting and not as much transparency as some of us like, including a CBO score,” the veteran lawmaker observed.  “Cost is one of the issues we have to address.  We simply cannot afford to continue to have double-digit increases in premiums. Going forward, it’s not sustainable.

“In Ohio, we’ve had a 91 percent increase in the individual market, and over the last four years, an 82 percent increase in the small business market. We’re talking premiums. We’re not talking about deductibles for individuals, which of course has gone up just as much if not more. The Kaiser Foundation — I think their number is $4,700 per family as the average increase in health care costs over the last several years.  And that’s compared to a $2,500 decrease that was promised with regard with the Affordable Care Act.”

As part of reforming the nation’s health care system, Portman said it was critical to also reform Medicaid – a program, he noted, that has been expanded in Ohio, and one that has played a vital role in combatting the opioid epidemic that is raging across the Buckeye State.

“I talk to you as someone who lives in an expansion state,” he stated.  “Only 20 or 22 of us, depending on how you count it, are in states that are expanded.  The majority of my colleagues on the Republican side do not have the same experience I have in knowing how expansion states work.  This is an incredibly important program for those who have been affected by the opioid epidemic.

“We believe that — based on the numbers we’re getting and we’re digging as deeply as we can — 30 percent of the people who are on expanded Medicaid in Ohio are receiving mental health or drug treatment. Much more dramatic, 50 percent of the costs of expanded Medicaid are for that purpose. So 50 percent – 50 percent — of the costs of expanded Medicaid in Ohio go to mental health and substance abuse treatment.  That shows you the degree to which this opioid crisis has hit our state, but also the degree to which these people — a lot of whom are single adults who have been brought into Medicaid through the expansion — are the target, in a sense, of the affliction of opioids in our state.

“The grip of this epidemic is not identical in every state, but it is everywhere. I am trying to ensure that, as we go through this, we’re cognizant of that and we end up with something that doesn’t pull the rug out from under those people — which is not easy to do given the many states that haven’t expanded. But in order to get my support and the support of some of my other colleagues, we’re going to have to address that issue.”

The third challenge Portman talked about was the opioid epidemic itself.  It is a problem that is devastating Ohio.  It is also one that this widely respected former Congressman and Cabinet official has dedicated himself to fighting as he begins the second term of his Senate career.

“It goes to the very core of who we are,” Portman said of the fight against opioids.  “In our country today, we have the worst drug crisis ever …  I’ve probably visited with a thousand addicts or recovering addicts over the last two years. Just last weekend, I was at two treatment centers.  I’ve spent a lot of time with this issue. I think we’re at a point where things are getting worse, not better.  And yet Congress is responding.  To turn the tide, it’s got to be comprehensive and it has to engage the community more.  That’s what we’ve been focused on.”

Portman has been a leader in the fight for more funding to combat this opioid crisis, and is the author of the Comprehension Addiction Recovery Act, a landmark piece of legislation that was recently enacted and would help achieve that goal.

“As of two weeks ago, that money is starting to go out,” Portman said of the funds that have been appropriated as a result of CARA.  “Ohio just got $26 million.  We’re going to focus on treatment options for people, which is very important right now.  Eight out of 10 people who have this addiction are not seeking treatment.  We have to get them into treatment. Finally, we have an opportunity with this new legislation to help in terms of the fentanyl crisis and with prescription drug overprescribing.

“It took us three years to get the CARA legislation moving.  We did a lot of research.  We had five conferences here in D.C and brought the best experts in from around the country. We really tried to do this right, and I do think it can make a difference.  If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be standing here before you as a U.S. Senator.  Because I do think that despite all the distractions out there, we have a chance to continue to make progress.  And that’s our responsibility.”

The Ripon Society is a public policy organization that was founded in 1962 and takes its name from the town where the Republican Party was born in 1854 – Ripon, Wisconsin. One of the main goals of The Ripon Society is to promote the ideas and principles that have made America great and contributed to the GOP’s success. These ideas include keeping our nation secure, keeping taxes low and having a federal government that is smaller, smarter and more accountable to the people.