At long last Thursday, President Donald Trump did what he said he would do 10 weeks ago: Declare the opioid drug epidemic in this nation a public health emergency.
Though some may be annoyed over the delay in the official announcement and others may argue that the declaration lacks the force and funding of a true “national emergency,” we are nonetheless heartened by the action for its short- and long-term potential.
If coupled with a massive injection of additional funding, it could mark a turning point in fighting the national drug crisis that has tormented Ohio and the Mahoning Valley particularly hard.
How hard? Four thousand state residents died last year of accidental drug overdoses, mostly from opioids. In the Mahoning Valley, more than 700 OD deaths have been logged over the past five years.
The president’s action partially fulfills one of the chief executive’s most important campaign pledges – to rein in the epidemic that is claiming more American lives each year than were killed throughout the two-decade-long Vietnam War.
In the short term, the designation of a public health crisis, formally made by Eric D. Hargan, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, would allow for some grant money to be used to combat opioid abuse, permit the hiring of specialists to tackle the crisis and expand the use of telemedicine services to treat people in rural areas ravaged by opioid use, where doctors are often in short supply.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Trump said the declaration now allows him to suspend a rule that prevents Medicaid from funding patient services at many drug rehabilitation facilities.
That 52-year-old rule has hurt Ohio and other states that have expanded Medicaid insurance to millions of new recipients in recent years in concert with provisions in the Affordable Care Act.
That rule forbids Medicaid funding for those seeking treatment for addiction in any recovery center with more than 16 beds. Given the scope of the crisis, many such centers in the nation and in Greater Youngstown are designed to hold far more than 16 patients.
As U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a commander in the congressional war on opiate abuse, put it, “It goes back to 1965 with the idea that larger institutional care for people who needed mental-health treatment was not as effective as care at smaller facilities. But a half century later, larger facilities are better capable than they used to be, and we’re in the midst of the worst drug crisis in American history, so this 16-bed limit just doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Now that the emergency declaration gives him the power, Trump must keep his word and act fast to repeal the rule.
ONLY THE FIRST STEP
Despite those and other positive immediate assets of the president’s action Thursday, the emergency declaration must be regarded as only the first major step in the federal government’s expanding role in easing the national epidemic. More programs and more funding to states must be implemented if the commitment so passionately made by the president Thursday is to carry any serious and long-lasting weight.
As Ohio’s senior U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said in response to the declaration Thursday, “We need to make it just as easy for Ohioans to seek treatment as it is for them to find opioids and heroin on the streets. That means President Trump must use this declaration to boost treatment, invest in the people and programs that fight this every day, and make treatment more affordable.”
The emergency public-health declaration comes in advance of Tuesday’s release of the final report of the president’s national commission on opioid abuse, which is expected to call for billions of dollars in new federally funded anti-drug initiatives.
That means the onus soon will fall on federal lawmakers to make those initiatives realities.
“Congress now has to step up and appropriate the money,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Friday.
In that endeavor, we call on our Ohio delegation to the Senate and House of Representatives to speak with one voice to ensure Ohio – ranked first in the nation in the scope of opiate abuse and deaths – gets its fair share of funding funneled to state and local agencies.
There is no time to waste. Giving teeth to the president’s declaration must rank as a top congressional priority in these waning weeks of the 2017 congressional session. Inaction is unacceptable.