Schalk on Capitol Hill to address opioid epidemic
Prosecutor J. Otto Schalk represented Harrison County last week while testifying before the United States Senate about the opioid epidemic.
He was one of five witnesses for ‘Unintended Consequences: Medicaid and the Opioid Epidemic’ in front of the full U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs last Wednesday.
The purpose of the hearing was to examine the relationship between the Medicaid expansion and the ongoing opioid epidemic.
‘We are a community in Southern Indiana that in many ways is representative of much of our nation,’ Schalk told the committee. ‘Every time a hard-working American pays their taxes, they are inadvertently funding drug dealers with a new supply of high-powered opioids that are poisoning our schools and our streets. That’s a bold claim; however, as a prosecutor, it’s something that I see routinely. It’s no secret that our Medicaid program is ripe for fraudulent activity. Prosecutors know this, doctors know this and the reality is that drug dealers know this as well. An individual needs not only traffic illegal street drugs to qualify as a drug dealer; a Medicaid beneficiary that is selling their prescription pills is no different in the eyes of the law.’
Schalk said of clients in Harrison County that are on probation and in an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, more than half make less than $10,000 per year.
‘Common sense dictates that, when we give someone making less than $10,000 per year that is struggling to keep the lights on and put food in the refrigerator, that we give a 90-count bottle of hydrocodone each and every month, and those pills are going for $15 a piece on the street, tax free, they are going to see the opportunity for financial gain. If we believe otherwise, we are naive.’
Unlike with other street drugs, such as heroin or methamphetamine, Schalk said a dealer in opioids doesn’t need to know someone that’s well connected in the drug culture to funnel their supply. A dealer in opioids simply needs to know a doctor and claim to have an ailment, he said.
‘And if the opioid dealer is on Medicaid, they receive their supply of high-powered narcotics for free or nearly free,’ he continued.
Schalk said he polled jail and probation officers and determined most inmates and probation clients are taking two to four high-powered opioids each day.
‘That’s 60 to 120 pills they are being prescribed each month. Conservatively, many of these pills are going for $30 a piece on the street. The incentive to opt out of Medicaid, to better one’s lot in life, is drastically reduced for individuals that are making $3,600 a month tax free in selling their prescription pills that they are getting at no cost.’
Schalk said he was not there to say Medicaid isn’t a tremendous asset for the country, but he was speaking from personal experiences as a county prosecutor.
‘A prosecutor in the trenches. I see firsthand what is devastating our communities,’ he said. ‘I see day in and day out individuals that are Medicaid recipients dealing and abusing the prescription pills that are government funded … The same drug being used to treat opiate addiction is sold on the street and is as prevalent or more prevalent than hardened street drugs.
‘I’m not an expert on addiction treatment, and I’m not going to testify to treatment options, but, as a prosecutor, as a taxpayer, I’m appalled that my taxes help fund a drug that is so heavily trafficked amongst my community, especially where the opportunities for abuse far outweigh the intended benefits,’ Schalk said.
After Schalk’s testimony, he and the other four witnesses answered numerous questions from senators.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny said the answer lies with a massive federal investment to build a treatment system that doesn’t exist yet. He said every county in the United States needs a facility where an addict can walk in for treatment with no ability to pay.
‘Until that time, opioid deaths will remain high,’ he said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said the government needs to step in to regulate prescriptions. He called for dramatic change.
‘I can promise you, if we throw more money at this, the problem is going to get worse,’ he said. ‘We need to put in place some rules … We write into law suggestions, and they never happen. This is a real epidemic. People are dying.’
Schalk’s full testimony (in text) can be found online at www.hsgac.senate.gov/hearings/unintended-consequences-medicaid-and-the-opioid-epidemic.
‘It was a tremendous honor to represent law enforcement on the national stage, especially as it relates to the opioid crisis,’ Schalk said Monday afternoon. ‘I had a surreal moment as prominent senators from both parties recognized me for my efforts in prevention.
‘While Washington is notorious for its inaction, I hope that our nation’s leadership recognizes that petty partisan politics have no role in solving this epidemic, and this is deserving of everyone’s attention and time,’ he said.