Trump opioid declaration not enough, officials say

Lisa Blunt-Rochester

DOVER ­— Delaware’s top officials greeted President Trump’s Thursday declaration of a national opioid public health emergency with a mixed reaction.

The announcement creates a 90-day emergency that can be renewed, making it easier for people to get treatment in some cases, and also expands telemedicine services, makes HIV funds available for drug abuse treatment and enables the Department of Labor to provide grants to workers impacted by opioids.

However, the Republican president didn’t commit any new funds and stopped short of characterizing the epidemic as a national disaster.

The focus on opioids, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, is good, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester said in a statement, but it could have been more.

“From our rural communities to our urban centers, the opioid crisis is causing devastation the country over. While I am pleased that the administration is beginning to address this national epidemic, I strongly believe that more must be done to combat the severity of this issue,” Rep. Blunt Rochester, a Democrat, said.

“Congress has already proposed a bipartisan package that will assist law enforcement in treating those with addiction and will help individuals in their own struggle with this disease. The human cost is simply too great not to take significant steps toward a comprehensive approach to combat the opioid epidemic.

“Simply put, this effort falls short of the incredible response that is required. The decision to declare a ‘public health emergency,’ and not a ‘national emergency’ under the Stafford Act, only allows for broader usage of grants and an easement of regulations, but ultimately fails to provide law enforcement, public health officials and medical facilities with the tools they need to tackle the opioid crisis.

“We need to come together, as Democrats and Republicans, to put forth a national opioids response that provides sufficient funding and coordinates new and innovative ways to overcome this epidemic.”

Three hundred eight people died from drug overdoses in Delaware last year, up from 229 in 2015. Prescription drugs were found in the system of 210 of those individuals.

More than 2 million Americans had an addiction to opioids in 2016, and drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, the White House said.

“No part of our society — not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural — has been spared this plague of drug addiction and this horrible, horrible situation that’s taken place with opioids,” the president said.

One day after the presidential decree, the Behavioral Health Consortium, created this year by the General Assembly, met for the first time to develop a plan for substance abuse.

A spokesman for Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, said the governor “is concerned that this declaration falls short of the efforts needed to combat this crisis” but has confidence in the consortium and other efforts being undertaken by Delaware.

In recent years, officials both around the country and the state have begun treating addiction as a disease to be treated rather than a crime that needs to be punished.

David Humes, a board member of the nonprofit atTAcK addiction, in April said the First State has “been ahead of the curve” in treating addiction but is only “at the tip of the iceberg.”

Delaware legislators have passed laws allowing the carrying of naloxone, a medication that can counteract the effects of a drug overdose. They’ve also created a committee reviewing drug overdoses and expanded treatment centers.

Attorney General Matt Denn last month unveiled an updated plan for dealing with the epidemic, which Delaware Health and Social Services Secretary Kara Odom Walker called “the public health crisis of our generation.”

Mr. Denn’s proposal calls for, among other steps, using additional money for treatment facilities, expanding naloxone use by police, better coordinating efforts across state and local agencies, broadening health insurance plans and expanding the state’s prescription-monitoring programs.

The epidemic partly stems from increased prescribing of painkillers, with Americans receiving four times as many opioid prescriptions now as in 1999, per the CDC. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports 80 percent of new heroin users first used prescription opioids.
Delaware’s U.S. senators, both Democrats, commended the president for the announcement while also saying it lacks teeth.

“Delaware has not been immune to the substance abuse and addiction epidemic that is devastating families and ravaging communities across the country,” Sen Tom Carper said in a statement. “We’ve lost hundreds of our loved ones and neighbors to fatal overdoses, and many more are struggling with addiction and substance abuse. It’s about time that President Trump follows through on his promise to declare a public health emergency on this worsening crisis.

“Heroin and opioid addiction is a complex problem, but fatal overdoses are preventable. The best way we can follow through on President Trump’s promise to fight this epidemic on all fronts is to make sure that not only law enforcement, but also health care providers have the resources they need to save lives and help people recover from this deadly disease.”

Both Sen. Carper and Sen. Chris Coons criticized a Thursday vote by the U.S. House of Representatives that cuts more than $1 trillion from Medicaid.
Sen. Coons, a Democrat, said in a statement the vote, along with the GOP’s attempts to repeal some of the coverage offered by the Affordable Care Act, “speaks volumes about where the Administration’s real priorities lay.”

The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services declined to comment, with a spokeswoman saying the agency would wait for further guidance from the federal government first.

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