- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2017

Senate Democrats pressured Republicans Thursday to approve billions of dollars to fight the opioid epidemic this year, saying President Trump’s lofty rhetoric on addiction will ring hollow if his party doesn’t back it up with real money.

Mr. Trump declared the prescription drug and heroin crisis to be a public health emergency in October, saying the time had come to end the scourge, yet he left it to Congress to free up resources for the fight.

Two months later, though, Congress hasn’t found any more cash.

“A vision, without funding, is a hallucination,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said. “And so far, President Trump has not put up one additional nickel to deal with this issue beyond what had already been passed by Congress at the end of last year.”

About $1 billion was approved under President Barack Obama, which the Trump administration is still doling, though stakeholders say the money is insufficient and will run out before too long.

The push for extra dollars is yet another wrinkle in thorny talks on how to avoid a federal shutdown before Christmas. Majority Republicans need the support of at least eight Democrats to get any bill to 60 votes in the Senate, raising the stakes as Democrats insist on matching any spending hike for the military with money for domestic priorities.

Democrats say Republicans are focused on defense spending, while ignoring the death toll from opioids, which saw 60,000 Americans killed in 2016 — more than died in the entire Vietnam War.

“The days of shortchanging the response to this crisis need to end, and we can start by providing additional funding for the opioid epidemic in this year’s end-of-year government funding bill,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said.

The epidemic has been driven in large part by the influx of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl from labs overseas. The toll makes drug overdoses the leading cause of injury death in the U.S., killing more people than car crashes and gun homicides combined and afflicting the old and young, rich and poor.

Democrats want $45 billion over 10 years for the fight. That’s the amount Mr. Trump backed as part of the GOP’s Obamacare replacement earlier this year, but it was designed to backfill cuts to Medicaid.

The White House and congressional Republicans say they’re still committed to new funding, though they’re still trying to land the right number.

“The amount of money that it will take to combat this crisis is huge,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “We’re going to continue looking at the best ways to do that. We’re working an interagency process to see what that number looks like.”

She couldn’t promise, however, that the process would be wrapped up by the end of the year.

“This wasn’t a problem that happened overnight,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to fix it overnight.”

Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, said opioids is top of mind for everyone, but the money should be spent wisely.

“It all gets down to how are we going to offset that, how we’re going to pay for it,” he said. “If we just allocate substantial money without a real plan, I’ve found that generally it becomes a waste, not an investment.”

For now, Mr. Trump’s emergency blueprint calls for tapping the Public Health Emergency Fund to wage the fight. That pot of money, however, has been whittled down to around $60,000 — a pittance compared to the scope of the problem.

“We will continue discussions with Congress on the appropriate level of funding needed to address this crisis,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said.

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