President Trump last year pledged to spend “a lot money” on the opioid crisis but used his platform to focus on military and border-security spending instead, nudging the drug fight to the sidelines. But the crisis has continued, and now all sides are demanding tangible progress in 2018.
Mr. Trump declared a “public health emergency” in October, hoping to draw attention and new resources to the opioid fight. The declaration, set to expire Tuesday, was renewed just before the weekend.
Issued to great fanfare, the declaration has failed to pry new money out of a Congress deadlocked over an immigration debate that pushed the opioids crisis to the background.
“Given the scale of the crisis, the presidential and congressional response has been woefully inadequate,” said John F. Kelly, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “More Americans under the age of 50 now die from drug overdose than any other cause, and it is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.”
Democrats say Mr. Trump is the one sidelining the issue, citing proposed cuts to Medicaid and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the lack of experienced professionals in key posts.
“When you look at the budget attack on ONDCP, when you look at the general budget attacks on programs that support opioids recovery, it’s hard to pinpoint a place where they actually look like they’re doing anything serious,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.
Mr. Trump pointed the finger back at Democrats, saying get-tough border proposals at the heart of the funding fight will stem the flow of fentanyl and other deadly opioids into the U.S.
“We need the Wall to help stop the massive inflow of drugs from Mexico, now rated the number one most dangerous country in the world,” he tweeted in the run-up to the three-day shutdown that ended Monday.
While D.C. deadlocks, people are dying. Drug overdoses killed more than 60,000 people last year, according to government estimates, driven in large part by the influx of synthetic opioids like fentanyl from clandestine labs overseas.
“The administration is in this fight for the long haul, and given magnitude of the problem the country is facing, this is clearly not going to be solved overnight,” said Health and Human Services Department spokesman Matt Lloyd.
Pointing to a list of agency actions, he said the administration “made significant progress” last year.
Among other things, the administration cracked down on fentanyl traffickers, expanded treatment options under Medicaid and fully implemented a government campaign that warns people about the dangers of opioids.
Mr. Trump also signed the INTERDICT Act, a bipartisan measure that provides border and customs agents with $9 million for additional portable chemical screening devices to check packages, mail and travelers for deadly fentanyl.
“I think he definitely moved the needle, because he elevated the issue to where it needs to be,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican.
Yet critics say lofty White House speeches won’t pay for treatment, education or overdose-reversing drugs when states exhaust $1 billion in grants that Congress approved under President Obama in late 2016.
“The Trump Administration’s national public health declaration has been nothing more than a symbolic gesture. While it has helped draw attention to the opioid crisis, they have fallen short of making any significant progress toward saving lives,” said Gary Mendell, who testified before the White House commission on opioids as CEO of Shatterproof, a nonprofit that combats stigma surrounding addiction. “As we enter year two of the Trump presidency, the administration must follow their words with concrete solutions.”
The administration will get a chance to engage on opioids in the coming weeks, as Congress tries to compromise on defense and domestic spending before another shutdown deadline on Feb. 8.
“I’m pretty confident it will be one of the lead issues,” Mr. Whitehouse said.
Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, is also optimistic, saying he’s eager to give a “helping hand” to states like his own, which launched a $30 million plan Monday to limit opioid dosages and vastly expand treatment and addiction-awareness in schools.
Ms. Capito, whose state is reeling from the opioid crisis, said the lack of new funding is a lingering blindspot in the federal response to the crisis, though she thinks Congress should be able to find the money on its own.
“I don’t think that [Mr. Trump] necessarily has to,” Ms. Capito said. “Except, I think that his agreement to a much higher number would help us.”