U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler discusses the House’s efforts to confront opioid abuse
Julie Oziah-Gideon went to a half-dozen school assemblies, organized by U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler in the spring of 2018, to share the story of her daughter’s fatal opioid overdose. She hoped it might help somebody avoid the same fate.
She also wanted Hartzler’s support for federal legislation to improve insurance coverage for substance abuse treatment. Now, says she feels “used” by the 4th District Congresswoman in pursuit of good publicity.
“At first she seemed open, like maybe there was something we could do, that at least she could get me to the right people -- I had hopes, you know?” said Oziah-Gideon, 43, operations director at a Springfield screen-printing business.
But she said she only heard from Hartzler’s staff twice after the assemblies, asking if they could use a photo of her daughter for a speech on the House floor.
Oziah-Gideon said she agreed to the use of Huntley’s photo because she wanted her daughter’s story to be shared.
“She used that but she didn’t want to try to help go any further,” she said.
Spokesperson Steve Walsh said Hartzler, a Republican, has supported more than 45 pieces of legislation and more than $10 billion in funding to address substance abuse and mental health.
“Congresswoman Hartzler is thankful for Julie Oziah-Gideon’s participation in a series of anti-drug assemblies as Julie’s story of the tragic loss of her daughter touched many students and teachers,” Walsh said in a statement. “She has been personally supportive of Julie’s efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of opioids and desire to change state law to ensure equitable treatment of mental and physical issues.”
‘Who would pay?’
A mutual acquaintance introduced her to Hartzler a year after her daughter, Samantha Huntley, died three days short of her 21st birthday. Huntley became addicted to heroin after she was prescribed painkillers following a car wreck that left her back broken in three places, her mother said.
Upon hearing her daughter’s story, Oziah-Gideon said Hartzler appeared “sad and heartbroken.”
While Walsh said Oziah-Gideon was interested in state legislation, she said she wanted to tighten federal parity laws, which require insurers to cover mental health and substance abuse issues like other medical conditions. She said her carrier limited in-patient treatment to 30 days.
The law wasn’t working, nor was it being enforced, Oziah-Gideon argued. One possible solution would be to mandate that insurance companies cover in-patient services for longer than 30 days, an amount of time that barely covered detox, she said.
Hartzler didn’t make any promises about legislation. Instead, she invited Oziah-Gideon and their mutual friend, Tom Krause, a retired teacher and coach, to talk to students at a series of school assemblies around her central Missouri Congressional district in April of last year.
In between the school talks, which took place over a three-day period, Oziah-Gideon and Krause again brought up some of their ideas.
That’s when Krause said Hartzler answered them with one question: “Who would pay for it?”
The refrain, often repeated by lawmakers, came off as disrespectful and dismissive, he said.
“You have a grieving mother sitting in front of you, asking for help,” Krause said. “You’re the Congresswoman, shouldn’t you have to answer that? I don’t know, Vicky, how much is that young girl’s life worth?”
Oziah-Gideon said nothing publicly about the episode for more than a year. Then she read earlier this month that Hartzler’s farm received a federal payout of about $109,000 on losses related to corn, soybeans and wheat.
“I know the farmers are important and they need help and I get that,” Oziah-Gideon said. “It’s just Vicky doesn’t seem to care unless it’s benefiting her.”
She said she appreciated Hartzler’s support and votes in favor of bills. But she saw drug overdose deaths as an epidemic that required systemic change and needed Hartzler to “fight” for her.
“(Hartzler) was leading us to believe there was something she could do but when it came down to it, she said ‘I don’t know who would fund it’ and ‘I’ll get back to you’ and never did,” Oziah-Gideon said. “It was disappointing.”
An ominous feeling
Oziah-Gideon said her daughter was first introduced to opioids at age 16, after the car wreck. The Kickapoo High School sophomore was in pain daily and her life radically changed—she could no longer be a cheerleader, no longer even carry her own backpack.
“She was noticing that taking the pills numbed not only her physical pain, but her emotional pain,” Oziah-Gideon said.
Huntley told her mother she was addicted to heroin the month she graduated high school.
The next few years were about getting her help and fending off relapse. The most effective treatment was in-patient. But after the first 30 days, Huntley was often told that insurance would no longer cover the treatment. Oziah-Gideon spent thousands of dollars up front.
“She would come to me and say, ‘Mom, it’s so much easier to use,’” Oziah-Gideon said, of the shuffle between centers.
The in-patient time available was often not long enough to make meaningful, lasting gains, Oziah-Gideon said. In between transitioning from a Florida treatment facility to one in Texas, Huntley came home to Springfield.
“We were sick about it and we had bad feelings about it, but we didn’t have a choice about it,” she said.
Days later, Oziah-Gideon was awoken by an ominous feeling at 4:30 a.m. She found Samantha sitting in bed, her face laying in vomit and her mouth clenched.
“This whole thing with her dying, it was like her life wasn’t important enough that I couldn’t afford to pay for the treatment out of pocket,” Oziah-Gideon said. “So they kicked her out and she died. That’s what it boiled down to.”
Hartzler has supported legislation to grow the capacity of inpatient mental health facilities to treat substance abuse as well as to expand Medicaid and Medicare coverage for addiction treatment, Walsh said.
“Parity is already the law of the land at the federal level and Vicky supports ensuring the law is followed,” Walsh said in the same statement. “Helping those suffering from opioid addiction is one of Vicky’s top priorities.”
Hartzler displayed Huntley’s photo on an easel during a House floor speech in June 2018. “This epidemic must not take any more of our young people,” she said.
Oziah-Gideon said her experience with state legislators have been much more positive. After testifying at a Missouri House committee, she recalled encouraging words from then-state Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican who has since left office.
“He told me the steps I needed to take and to please not give up,” Oziah-Gideon said.
She is now working with state Rep. Lynn Morris, R-Nixa, to craft legislation.
“He’s a great guy and has great ideas and he was more than willing to jump in and help,” Oziah-Gideon said.
Morris said he’s hoping to have a first draft next month, which he would like to call it Samantha’s Law.
“If it’s a problem and they need help, I try to help even if they are not my constituent,” Morris said.
Oziah-Gideon said her fight is much bigger than Missouri, which is why she turned to Hartzler. Her daughter had to walk away from a treatment facility in another state.
“This isn’t just for me and just for Sam,” Oziah-Gideon said. “This is for everybody out there that is struggling.”