By Maureen Hayden
In one of his last acts as governor, Vice President-elect Mike Pence bestowed the honorary title of Sagamore of the Wabash to Attorney General Greg Zoeller for his eight years as Indiana’s chief legal officer.
It may have been as fitting for Zoeller to have been honored for his role as a public health advocate.
Long before politicians were paying attention to the swell of opiate addiction that put Indiana among the Top 10 states for overdose deaths, Zoeller was sounding alarms and mobilizing resources to confront it.
When lawmakers failed to free up funding to equip police with the overdose rescue drug Narcan, Zoeller gave departments money from a settlement with a pharmaceutical company he’d sued for off-label and deceptive marketing.
And when lawmakers and the governor dallied in response to the outbreak of HIV among intravenous drug users in Scott County – the biggest HIV outbreak ever in rural America – Zoeller lobbied to legalize a controversial needle exchange.
Warning that it was no time to be risk averse, he ignored tough-on-crime prosecutors and argued that needle exchanges can save lives if they keep the deadly HIV from spreading.
“I’m not going to have anybody put to death with HIV just because they’ve broken the law,” Zoeller, a Republican, said at the time.
On Thursday, before he and other top state officeholders received their Sagamore awards, Zoeller reflected on how he became focused on public health.
Part of it stems from his Catholic faith, which by the way led him to defer the defense of death penalty appeals to other attorneys in his office.
“Serving others — as Catholics it’s our mission in life,” he said.
But part was pragmatic. The attorney general oversees the licensing of doctors and prosecutes Medicaid fraud, areas where Zoeller saw early signs of the prescription pill abuse that fed the opiate addiction crisis we now face.
Soon after taking office in 2008, Zoeller and his staff started to see “pill mills” pop up, run by doctors churning out painkiller prescriptions to anyone who came through the door.
Around the same time, police said they were seeing Oxycontin – a highly addictive, opiate-based painkiller – being sold in doctors’ parking lots.
“It was a shock to me,” Zoeller said.
When he asked a wide range of people — including doctors and police — to come to what he thought would be a small symposium to talk about what he feared was a trend, 350 people arrived. He opened the meeting by apologizing for not having enough chairs.
“I realized this thing is much bigger and a lot worse than I understood,” he said.
Zoeller admits that he didn’t understand fully what was happening. As his office worked with police around the state to curb the prescribing practices of pain doctors, addicts turned to illegally obtained opiates and heroin.
He calls the current crisis — which claimed more than 33,000 lives last year in the U.S. with overdoses – “medically assisted addiction.”
“It’s happened on my watch,” he said. “I hope I’ve risen to the occasion to have at least done something about it, but it’s not over. It’s not one of those things where I can check the box and say we did all we can do.”
Zoeller could have run for a third term.
But, fed up with a dysfunctional and polarized Congress, he decided to run this year for a U.S. House seat in the district that includes his hometown of New Albany.
He announced his decision while standing in sight of a new Ohio River bridge under construction.
“I talked about reaching across the things that divide us and bringing people together,” he said.
“That was clearly not the message of 2016,” he added with a laugh.
He lost in a five-way primary to the millionaire Republican Trey Hollingsworth, nicknamed “Tennessee Trey” by opponents for having moved to Indiana last year just before launching a self-funded campaign. Hollingsworth won the 9th District seat in the general election in November.
Zoeller says he’ll return to legal practice, do some teaching and work as a mediator.
“It is really is an honor to serve as the attorney general,” he said. “I’ve tried to treat it as something that people trusted me with, and I hope I’ve lived up to the honor that was given.”
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.