If newly named White House Chief of Staff John Kelly succeeds in bringing some order to the chaos that has so shaken the Trump administration, we hope he'll get the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ponder this: the interim report of the president’s commission on opioid abuse. If they follow the commission’s advice, they will save thousands of lives.
The members of the bipartisan commission, which includes N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, asked the president to declare a national emergency to deal with the deadly epidemic.
“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to Sept. 11 every three weeks,” the commission wrote in its report. “Your declaration will empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the executive branch even further to deal with this loss of life.”
Opioid overdose has become the nation’s leading cause of death in people under 50. Overdoses kill more people than car crashes and gun violence combined. Calling this a crisis is an understatement.
And the problem is getting worse. In North Carolina, as Herald-Sun staff writer Cliff Bellamy reported last week, the number of children entering foster care because of parents using drugs rose 41 percent from 2012 to 2016. The figures, while not all related to opioid abuse, come as federal, state and local officials try to respond to the opioid crisis, which includes both illegal and prescription drugs.
And yet, it appears President Trump is leaning toward the advice of his attorney general, who has proposed escalating the nation’s war on drugs. Sessions wants to go after drug dealers with a vengeance and seek maximum penalties. Trump wants to seal our border with Mexico, the route taken by many of the natural and synthetic opioids into this country.
They’re both ignoring something important: We’ve been trying to do just that for more than 40 years, and we’ve failed. The nation’s war on drugs has been a trillion-dollar debacle. Sealing the border simply inspires smugglers to find new and better routes. Locking up the small percentage of drug distributors who are caught offers opportunity to the aspiring successors lined up behind them.
It’s time for a new approach. One that the president’s commission advocates is waiving a federal rule that puts tight limits on the number of Medicaid recipients who can qualify for residential addiction treatment. The interim report also recommends expanded access to medications that are used in opioid addiction treatment.
Gov. Cooper, in an interview on PBS last week, said, “The report is incomplete. We’re whistling past the graveyard if we don’t recognize that, in order to provide treatment, that we have to increase Medicaid funding to the states, and we have to make sure that every American has good, quality health insurance that covers substance abuse and addiction treatment.”
Declaring a national emergency and freeing up Medicaid funds for addiction treatment would be a big step. So would additional federal funding to expand addiction-treatment programs.
The governors of four states – Arizona, Florida, Maryland and Virginia – have declared states of emergency because of the opioid crisis. A fifth – Alaska – has declared a disaster. North Carolina needs to join them. But that’s no substitute for a national declaration of emergency, backed by the kind of help all the states need to defend themselves against an epidemic that is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate.
This editorial has been adapted from an editorial that originally appeared in The Fayetteville Observer.