Now that President Trump has officially declared the nation’s opioid epidemic a public health emergency, what happens next is anyone’s guess. Some laud the decision as a welcome step forward that will help unclog government bureaucracy and allow more federal resources to flow to states and local communities. Others viewed the announcement as not going far enough, noting the absence of specifics or new funding earmarked to address the crisis. For those of us who have fought in the trenches alongside loved ones battling opioid addiction, and for those on the front lines fighting tirelessly to help others survive this deadly plague, it’s hard to see how this will really change anything.
For starters, no additional funding for treatment or prevention was part of the president’s speech late last week. Actually, the proposed federal budget introduced in May cuts funding to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, the agency responsible for addressing the opioid problem, by about $400 million. There is also no real plan to address the emergency at this point—only broad pledges to overcome this crisis and become the generation that wins the war against drug abuse. Meanwhile, nearly 100 Americans die each day from heroin or prescription pill overdose, according to the CDC, distinguishing opioid addiction as our country’s leading cause of accidental death.
Trump’s decision was certainly a positive step in raising awareness and could potentially free up grant money from various federal agencies. But after months of talks, it fell far short of recommendations from his commission, which urged more beds for treatment, more funding to help addicts who need treatment, and numerous other steps to address the problem head on. Instead, we got a bold promise to become the generation that ends drug addiction, and top-notch, inspiring speeches from the president and first lady.
Pardon me for being skeptical, but hope is often an elusive and fleeting feeling when you’ve spent nearly a decade battling to keep a child from succumbing to death by overdose. For most of these years, government officials were complicit in the spiraling problem, happy to accept Big Pharma lobby money in exchange for looking the other way. When mainstream media outlets and politicians finally began shining a light on the issue several months ago, many of us were cautiously optimistic that meaningful steps to address the issue might finally be around the corner. Since then we’ve only seen more of the same—empty words, few actions, and a death count that keeps on rising. We watched President Obama sign Big Pharma-backed legislation into law—the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act—greatly limiting DEA and law enforcement powers to crack down on drugmakers, distributors, and unscrupulous doctors.
When our son came of age during the height of Florida’s pill mill epidemic, Oxycontin and similar pain pills flooded the halls of our middle schools and high schools, offering cheap, quick escapes for teens struggling to find themselves. When we first found ourselves searching dark buildings for our missing son, we had no idea that this misery would continue for years to come, including 12 relapses and over $200,000 of debt tied to failed residential and outpatient recovery programs. Yet compared to the thousands of parents, siblings, and spouses who have lost family members or friends, we were fortunate in that our son managed to cheat death twice by being resuscitated from overdose. Somehow, he is still alive, and at least for now, functioning relatively well.
The opioid crisis is a very complex, difficult problem, and there are certainly no easy solutions. Arming first responders with the anti-overdose drug Naloxone is a positive step to give some overdose victims a second chance, but most will soon relapse again unless the root cause of their addiction is addressed. Directing more money toward awareness campaigns is fine, but only scratches the surface. We simply cannot leave any stone unturned to expect to make a difference in an epidemic destroying so many lives, families, and communities.
Trump was right in pointing out that it will take all of us working together at a local level to reverse the tides of opioid addiction. His announcement was a small step forward, but it’s going to take a lot more than words to keep this wildfire from continuing to rage.
Rick Van Warner is a 30-year veteran of journalism, crisis management, and media relations. His first book, On Pills & Needles: The Relentless Fight to Save My Son from Opioid Addiction, releases January 2018.