Substance abuse providers express concern over budget, vetoes

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - For some substance abuse treatment providers, the governor's recent budget vetoes - which include a $50 million cut to Medicaid and an $8.8 million reduction in behavioral health treatment grants - are only the beginning.

"One of the difficult things we have in general, as a state, [is] looking at the whole person," said Rebecca Ling of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

CITC Chief of Staff Joshua Franks said concerns have only grown in the past few weeks.

"I think the main reaction was, how do we continue to connect people with their potential?" he said, "because we don't just serve a part of a person. We serve the whole person."

Ling, Franks and other officials at CITC, for example, who oversees the Ernie Turner Center, said they are set to make adjustments to their substance abuse treatment programs. They're just struggling to figure out where.

"Same-day access to services is so hard already," said Wesley Brewington, a CITC recovery coach who went through substance abuse treatment and has now been sober for six years. "Finding a detox bed for somebody, finding a treatment bed for somebody can be a struggle a lot of the time. So just to hear more cuts are coming... It's kind of scary with the eliminated services we already have."

The Alaska Section of Epidemiology stated in a report last year that Alaska has a "strikingly" high rate of alcohol poisoning deaths - the highest in the nation - while a 2019 study by the same group showed the per capita alcohol consumption in Alaska has exceeded the national average since at least 2005. The department also said Alaska is currently experiencing the highest rate of drug overdose mortality in the past decade, driven primarily by misuse of prescription and illicit opioids, and compounded by the use of other drugs.

"A lot of people are suffering from addiction," Ling said. "So every bed, every treatment spot count, because it's really a life."

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has repeatedly said that "the state's fiscal reality dictates a reduction in expenditures across all agencies," as noted in official documents presented upon his announcement of the June 28 budget vetoes. Proponents of the cuts also said that funding can be reinstated by the legislature and through a supplemental budget if absolutely necessary.

Those on the front lines of substance abuse treatment, however, said they feel that won't be enough.

"We're really behind the eight ball," Ling said. "We need many more services than we have now, and the cuts will slow us in our tracks."

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