- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is headed to a small West Virginia town wracked by the opioid epidemic, spotlighting a national crisis that was a top campaign issue in 2016 but gets hardly any attention from the new crop of Democratic White House hopefuls.

In her visit Friday to Kermit, near the Kentucky border, she will pitch a $100 billion plan to fight opioid addiction, paid for by her proposed “ultra-millionaire tax.”

The town, which is suing five pharmaceutical companies that flooded it with millions of oxycodone pills in just a few years, provides a strategic backdrop for Ms. Warren to link the opioid scourge to her crusade against corporate greed.

“The ongoing opioid crisis is about health care. But it’s about more than that. It’s about money and power in America — who has it, and who doesn’t,” Ms. Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, wrote Wednesday in a post on Medium as she pivoted to the opioid issue. “This crisis has been driven by greed, pure and simple.”

She said members of the Sackler family who own pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and one of the companies sued by Kermit, should “go to jail” for contributing to the opioid crisis.

But her plan would hit wealthy families such as the Sacklers with taxes, not prison time.

For the rest of the 2020 Democrats, opioid addiction doesn’t pack much bang for the buck as a campaign issue. Fostering broad agreement in Washington, it is one crisis that gave President Trump a bipartisan victory last year when he signed into law a sweeping bill to fight the opioid problem.

In the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned what was viewed as a regional drug problem into a national issue. His focus on the addiction epidemic from prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl — which claim more than 120 lives every day from overdoses — persuaded Mr. Trump and other candidates to adopt their own aggressive plans.

Mr. Christie later helmed the Trump administration’s national opioid commission.

Mr. Trump made the opioids fight a signature issue. He dubbed it a “public health emergency” in late 2017 and pressed Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to combat the crisis last year.

He also has taken a hard line on opioid trafficking by urging Chinese officials to schedule all forms of potent fentanyl as illegal and arguing that his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall would help keep out drugs.

In the 2020 race, most of the more than 20 Democratic candidates refer to opioids only in passing.

“It is not addressed with any degree of specificity from any of the candidates I’ve gone to see,” said Liz Cody, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Center Harbor, New Hampshire.

The scarcity of proposals doesn’t bother her, though. Opioid addiction is an important issue but pales in comparison with the existential threat of climate change, she said.

“Not a whole lot else is going to matter in 30 years if we stay on this course,” Ms. Cody said.

Last year, New Hampshire had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country, the majority from fentanyl. West Virginia had the most overdose deaths.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas talked about the opioid epidemic at a recent campaign stop at Keene State College in New Hampshire. He said it is an example of the “incredibly warped system of justice in this country.”

He suggested legalizing marijuana and incarcerating pharmaceutical executives. He didn’t offer details.

In Kermit, Ms. Warren’s opioid plan is likely to resonate with voters, but she is traveling into Appalachian coal country and risks running into opposition to her aggressive stance on curbing fossil fuels.

“I don’t know how she will be received,” said a longtime Democratic politician in southern West Virginia, who didn’t want to be identified but spoke critically of Ms. Warren. “People know her plans on fossil fuels, and that’s where what few jobs we have come from.”

Ms. Warren’s opioid plan, the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act, is not entirely new. She introduced a similar bill last year, but the legislation languished in a Senate committee.

Ms. Warren and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, reintroduced an updated version Wednesday. The bill would designate $100 billion over 10 years to be spent on public health initiatives.

Under the plan, billions of dollars would be allocated each year to states, territories and tribal governments. Extra funds would be sent to hard-hit areas, and federal public health programs and nonprofit groups would get a share.

As with other Warren plans, the cost would be covered by her proposal to slap a 2% annual tax on the 75,000 families with $50 million or more in wealth.

The fat-cat tax would rake in an estimated $2.75 trillion over the course of a decade. That is enough, Ms. Warren said, to pay for her plans to combat opioid addiction, provide college debt relief and tuition-free education at public colleges and universities, establish a universal child care program and make a down payment on the “Green New Deal” to fight climate change and “Medicare for All” government-run health care.

Though not a top issue on the stump, the opioid crisis is addressed in legislation sponsored by many of the senators in the race.

Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont introduced a bill last year that would create criminal liability for top company executives, penalize drug manufacturers that illegally advertise, market or distribute an opioid product, and require drugmakers to reimburse the country for the negative economic impact of their products.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, other presidential hopefuls, signed on as co-sponsors of Mr. Sanders’ bill.

Ms. Harris co-authored a bill with Sen. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, that would bolster Food and Drug Administration oversight of advertising and other promotional materials for opioid drugs.

⦁ Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.

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