DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's return to a story we first told last week about a crisis in Chicago. There's been a stunning increase in the number of people dying from using heroin, and yet, at this moment, the state of Illinois is cutting funding for heroin treatment. Critics are attacking the Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, who vetoed part of a bill funding treatment programs. The governor says he is committed to helping heroin users in other ways. NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Myron Boyd describes his heroin addiction as a monster - something he says he could not battle alone. So the 47-year-old travels more than an hour almost every morning to the PEER Services treatment facility in the Chicago suburb of Evanston.
MYRON BOYD: You know, I get here, and I medicate in the morning.
SCHAPER: Medications such as methadone eliminate the craving for heroin and treat the sickening withdrawal symptoms. Boyd says he then usually goes to group or has a one-on-one therapy session with a counselor.
BOYD: I feel like I'm privileged to be here. It's been a lifesaver for me.
SCHAPER: State funding pays for Boyd's treatment, but recent budget cuts make it harder for addicts to get into recovery programs. The waiting list is growing in the midst of what Kate Mahoney, the executive director of PEERS Services, calls a heroin epidemic.
KATE MAHONEY: I've never see the price so low, the availability so wide - young people using and dying of heroin overdoses.
SCHAPER: At least 633 people died from heroin overdoses in Illinois last year. That's among the most in the country, and the Chicago area has led the nation in hospital emergency room visits due to heroin. But Mahoney says many more heroin addicts could be saved if Illinois' Medicaid program, which provides healthcare services to the poor, would fully cover methadone and other medication-assisted treatments, as most other states do.
MAHONEY: Without the treatment expansion, we are going to see a pretty vicious cycle with heroin dependence. I think we're going to see this epidemic continue to grow.
SCHAPER: In his veto message, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner applauds much of what's in the Heroin Crisis Act. He signed into law provisions improving education and prevention efforts and directing more drug offenders into treatment. He also approved measures aimed at putting emergency medications that counteract heroin overdoses into the hands of more police, fire and even school officials. But the governor says the portion of the bill expanding Medicaid coverage is something the state cannot afford. The legislation's lead sponsor calls the amendatory veto shortsighted.
LOU LANG: This bill was drafted to get people out of jail, out of the criminal justice system and into rehab.
SCHAPER: Democratic State Representative Lou Lang says 80 percent of those seeking treatment for opioid dependence in Illinois could qualify for Medicaid coverage. And he notes that the federal government would actually pick up much of that cost. And Lang says any initial cost to the state that will actually save more money down the line.
LANG: A small investment to help these people get off of drugs will reap large rewards in the future and save a lot of lives.
SCHAPER: Lang plans to introduce a measure to override Rauner's amendatory veto next week. The bill initially passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. But with the Republican governor and Democrats in the Illinois legislature already in an impasse over the state's budget, an override on the Heroin Crisis Act is far from a sure thing. David Schaper, NPR News.
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