On the short list of things President Donald Trump did right in his first year in office, the appointment of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis is near the top. Unfortunately, appointing commissions is easy. Following through with serious, sustained actions is hard. Trump has skipped the hard part.
The bipartisan commission, headed by then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, produced a solid, smart set of recommendations that were released in draft form in late July. It laid out the numbers: an average of 142 opioid overdose deaths occur each day; the addiction problem costs the nation $78 billion annually. The money quote: “If this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”
The “money” has proved to be the problem. The Christie commission recommended spending billions of dollars each year to implement the “gold standard” of addiction treatment. It recommended that the president declare opioid addiction to be a “national emergency” under the Stafford Act of 1988. That would have enabled states to draw from Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to combat opioid abuse.
Trump did not do that. Instead, in October, he announced with great fanfare that he was declaring opioid abuse to be a “public health emergency.” That would cut some red tape, but Trump offered nothing in the way of funding.
By October, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria had wrought havoc in coastal Texas and Florida and devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. FEMA’s funds were exhausted, and Congress had to appropriate an additional $50 billion, with more needs still unmet.
Never mind that the official death toll from all the hurricanes was 882 and opioid overdoses kill more than that in a week. There was no appetite in the administration and Congress for more FEMA spending, especially not with a $1.5 trillion tax cut to pay for.
In early August, Trump had vowed to “spend a lot of money” on the opioid crisis, which is having a particularly devastating effect among the under-educated blue-collar workers who provided much of his support. They lost out to hurricanes and corporate America’s insistence on tax cuts. Now Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s more inept advisers, is his point person on the crisis.
Last month, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., a member of the Christie commission, summed things up nicely, telling CNN that the public health emergency declaration and “other efforts to address the epidemic are tantamount to reshuffling chairs on the Titanic. The emergency declaration has accomplished little because there’s no funding behind it. You can’t expect to stem the tide of a public health crisis that is claiming over 64,000 lives per year without putting your money where your mouth is.”
– St. Louis Post-Dispatch