Anger mounts over Trump’s response to opioid deaths

The administration has not made an emergency designation even as deaths reach 1,000 a week.

On the mid-August day when President Donald Trump first called the nation’s opioid epidemic a “national emergency,” plaudits from the state’s congressional delegation were quick to follow.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the designation was overdue. A slew of GOP lawmakers, among them Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also praised the decision.

But two months later, Trump has yet to sign the paperwork to make the crisis a national emergency, which could open up more money for states like Ohio.

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In the intervening months, the White House has conducted a national listening tour with Kellyanne Conway, visiting 10 states. It’s met with key stakeholders. Last week, First Lady Melania Trump visited an opioid treatment center in West Virginia.

But it has not signed the paperwork to make the crisis a national emergency. Asked about the delay, a White House spokesman said last week, “The President’s policy advisers are working through the details with all of the relevant components and agencies. Right now these actions are undergoing a legal review.”

Added Trump in a statement on Friday: “We are studying national emergency right now. Believe it or not, doing national emergency, as you understand, is a very big statement.”

The wait, for some, is maddening.

“We asked them repeatedly to declare an emergency,” said Brown, who last month joined 11 other Senate Democrats in a letter urging Trump to speed up the process and treat it “with the urgency it demands.”

“It’s frustrating,” said Marcia Lee Taylor, chief policy officer of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “How many more people have to die before we take this problem seriously?”

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Even Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who chaired Trump’s commission on opioid abuse — expressed frustration, telling the Associated Press that it’s “not good” that no paperwork had been filed.

There are multiple ways an administration can declare a national emergency, including through the Stafford Act, a 1998 law that is used for most federal disaster response activities, particularly those requiring the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Just since Aug. 25, Trump has declared major disasters through the Stafford Act covering Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, Nate and Irma as well as for wildfires in California.

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But although Trump said on Aug. 10 that he has instructed his administration “to use all appropriate emergency and other authorities to respond to the crisis caused by the opioid epidemic,” the designation of the opioid crisis as a true national emergency hasn’t happened.

“It’s a much more involved process, and that’s something that they’re working through on the legal side, the administrative side, and making sure that it’s done correctly,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in explaining the delay last month.

Brown said the emergency designation would spur better coordination between federal and local officials and open up streams of federal dollars. “This is the biggest public health crisis since polio,” he said in describing the need. “Maybe it’s worse than polio.”

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By contrast, a spokeswoman for Portman said he believes the Trump administration is acting in good faith to make the crisis a national emergency.

Still, “Rob continues to push the Trump administration to do more,” Portman spokeswoman Emily Benavides said.

Taylor, of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, said an emergency designation would provide instant tools for the fight against the epidemic.

The federal government could waive some Medicaid regulations that could allow greater access to treatment, she said. It could loosen rules on the prescribing of drugs to treat overdoses and addiction. And it would tie together all the loose threads of the federal response and “really bring resources to bear” on an issue that is only increasing in urgency,” according to Taylor.

“We need to make sure that this crisis is treated as the public health emergency that it is,” she said.

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Since Trump made his remarks in August, more than 8,000 people nationally have died of an accidental overdose, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. By comparison, officials there say, H1N1, or swine flu, a national emergency in 2009, killed 1,000 people during the whole year.

Cuyler Costanzo, a clinical coordinator at Family and Community Services in Kent, said the federal government needs a full-bore effort to fight the epidemic, including an education campaign comparable to the 1980s outreach campaign that included the memorable “This is your brain on drugs” advertising campaign involving a frying egg.

To him, there’s no doubt that the epidemic warrants national designation.

“On 9/11 we lost 3,000 people in one day,” he said. “We’re losing 3,000 people every three weeks to this addiction. That’s 17 or 18 9/11’s a year.”

Martin Schladen of the Columbus Dispatch and Michael Dulman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

By the numbers

328: Percentage rise in deaths from heroin between 2010 and 2015.

72: Percentage rise in deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids (not including methadone) from 2014 to 2015.

64,000: Number of accidental overdose deaths recorded nationally in 2016.

20,000: Number of accidental overdose deaths attributed to opioids.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

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