By sheer force of his personality, Gov. Eric Holcomb has personified in his first year in office the upbeat optimism of a happy warrior. That was the expected impression when I sat down with him earlier this month.
But within minutes, Holcomb revealed the complexities of leadership after he experienced a year of extreme emotion, mostly due to the crushing and far-flung opioid pandemic that is hitting good Hoosier families across the socio-economic spectrum. He used the word “haunting,” in tandem with the adjective “fulfilling,” but still in the context of his personality, an unexpected pull of the human spirit.
“It’s been such a fulfilling experience and I underestimated how profound personal interactions could be,” Holcomb said. “It’s been very gratifying and haunting at times.”
How so? How haunting?
“Because you see the darker side of lives,” he responded. “You wonder about humanity and what some do. At the very same time, you see people rush to help. You see extreme good and bad, all in a day.” He hears that many employers can’t find enough job seekers who can pass a drug test. He hears about kids watching their parents shoot up and hungry toddlers wandering in toxic meth labs.
He lauds his assembled team of Drug Czar Jim McClelland, Dr. Jennifer Walthall who heads the Family Social Services Administration, new state health commissioner Dr. Kristina Box and State Police Supt. Doug Carter, explaining, “It’s fortunate to have this team chemistry with people all moving in the same direction.”
But this past week, we’ve learned how searingly hard grappling with the opioid crisis is going to be. The first was the resignation of Department of Child Services Director Mary Beth Bonaventura, who chafed under a chief of staff assigned to her, faltering technology, and what she described as funding cuts. The IndyStar reported that DCS has been “swamped” with a 65 percent increase in child abuse cases since 2010, many due to the opioid crisis. Marion County Juvenile Court Judge Marilyn Moores described the system as “literally drowning.”
“I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis,” Bonaventura wrote in the Dec. 12 letter to Holcomb. “I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn. I fear lives will be lost and families ruined.”
Holcomb disputes that, saying, “We are providing record funding to DCS with nearly half a billion dollars more in funding support over the next two years. We will continue to do all we can to protect children.”
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control reported that for the first time since 1992-93, life expectancy in the U.S. has declined for a second consecutive year. A big reason is that 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2016, a 28 percent increase over 2015.
Earlier this month, Indiana media reports said that General Assembly leaders would not be seeking new funding in the 2018 session, which is a non-budget year. Two thoughts came to mind: A crisis doesn’t work on a schedule and you get what you pay for. When I talked to Fayette County health officials last summer, along with state Rep. Cindy Ziemke, the appeal was for more funding.
“That narrative is a little misleading in the sense that funding comes from different places,” Holcomb explained. “We’re still expecting another $10 million from the CURES Act. We’re still seeking in the HIP waiver … another $60 million-$65 million that we’ll know by the end of January. We’re seeking that right now. We’re spending I’m going to guesstimate another $100 million statewide on this epidemic through various agencies. We have Indiana University stepping up and saying, ‘Here’s another $50 million.’”
The governor continued, “It’s not a budget year, so we’re not saying we’re going to appropriate another $50 million, but this is real money that is going to be added into this effort. This money is going to be going directly to treatment. That’s where we need the help right now.”
As for DCS, Indiana Office of Management and Budget Director Micah Vincent said on Thursday that the agency’s biennial request was for an additional $254.8 million over the biennium, and the budget Gov. Holcomb signed included $200 million more. Additionally, the administration is transferring $250 million from other sources to DCS during this biennium, for a total of a $450 million increase.
Another $137 million came to DCS from the general fund at the end of FY 2017, making a total increase during the Holcomb administration of $587 million, which includes the $100 million the governor referenced earlier.
Asked if the DCS system is “swamped,” Vincent answered, “What I would say is, we did review the need. That’s why we put $587 million in additional funding since this administration started.”
The opioid crisis we face is the story of our time. It is impacting our youth, families, schools, our worker pool, and will tax everything from county jails and budgets, child welfare, corrections and many aspects of a functioning society.
Gov. Holcomb is starkly correct on at least one huge point: We have a long, long way to go.
— Brian Howey is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at howeypolitics.com.