By Justin Wier
and Jordyn Grzelewski
A White House commission has asked President Donald J. Trump to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.
“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to Sept. 11 every three weeks,” a report by the commission reads.
The report, released this week, was drafted by the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The five-member commission was created by a March 29 executive order and includes the governors of New Jersey, North Carolina and Massachusetts.
In addition to declaring a national emergency, the opioid commission recommends several actions to combat the crisis, including:
Waive a barrier that prevents federal Medicaid funds from going to facilities that treat mental disorders that have more than 16 beds.
Enhance access to medication-assisted treatment such as methadone, suboxone or buprenorphine, and require Medicaid and Medicare to cover these treatments.
Mandate that every law- enforcement officer in the U.S. carry naloxone, also known as Narcan.
The commission says that waiving Medicaid exclusion for mental-health facilities with more than 16 beds “is the single fastest way to increase treatment availability across the nation.”
Local officials agree.
“That’s a major issue in this area,” said Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board. “People would have immediate access to treatment if that’s taken care of.”
Carolyn Givens, executive director of Neil Kennedy Recovery Centers, said waiving the 16-bed limit would significantly impact her organization’s ability to treat opioid-addicted patients.
“The issue is, when the demand is so great as it is right now, you have people needing to get into care, and with limited capacity, you cannot serve all of those who are so critically ill,” she said.
Givens bluntly described treatment wait times in this area as “terrible.”
“On any given day, we might have 40 people on a wait list,” she said.
The commission’s report notes that this change could occur through legislation, or that the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary could grant waivers if the president were to declare a national emergency.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, introduced legislation in the House that would allow facilities with up to 60 beds to receive federal Medicaid funds. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, a Cleveland Democrat and Cincinnati-area Republican, introduced a similar piece of legislation in the Senate that would increase the number to 40.
Also, the commission recommends that the government “immediately establish and fund a federal incentive to enhance access to Medication-Assisted Treatment.”
Dr. Daniel Brown of Meridian HealthCare, which offers MAT among its various treatment methods, expressed support for that access.
“[It] has been shown to be very effective in preventing relapse, and helping people remain in treatment,” he said.
The commission also seeks to increase access to naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
“We urge you to mandate, with federal assistance, that naloxone be in the hands of every law-enforcement officer in the United States,” the commission urged the president.
Most local law-enforcement agencies carry naloxone. The Vindicator reported this week that all Youngstown Police Department cruisers now will carry the overdose antidote.
The Valley’s elected officials urged the president to act on the commission’s recommendations.
Ryan said he asked the president to declare the opioid epidemic a public-health emergency in April.
“I am pleased that the White House Opioid Crisis Commission has reached the same conclusion, and I urge him to take swift action to fulfill this request,” Ryan said.
Portman, too, supports an emergency declaration.
“The question is what are the consequences of that? I hope we more aggressively implement the legislation we do have and [pursue additional legislation],” Portman said.
Sen. Brown said he will work alongside Portman and the Trump administration to support Ohio communities in the fight against opioid addiction.
“This report cannot be the end of the conversation,” Brown said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, attended a meeting with President Trump in March to discuss the opioid crisis.
“The president declaring a national crisis is important because there is no question that it is a national crisis,” Johnson said. “I think that’s step number one, because everybody ... will pay attention.”
The opioid commission plans to release its full report this fall.