January 31, 2018

Whitehouse Calls for Investigation Into Trump Administration’s Inaction on Opioid Epidemic

Opioid epidemic rages on amidst unfulfilled promises from President Trump

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has joined U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and fourteen other senators to request a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the actions taken by President Trump’s administration to address the opioid epidemic since he declared it a public health emergency.

On October 26, 2017, when President Trump directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency, he stated that the declaration would “allow for expanded access to telemedicine services” for addiction treatment; permit HHS to hire temporary “specialists with the tools and talent needed to respond effectively” to the opioid crisis; allow “the Department of Labor to issue dislocated worker grants to help workers…displaced from the workforce because of the opioid crisis”; and potentially enable the “shifting of resources within HIV/AIDS programs to help people eligible…receive substance abuse treatment.”

The declaration of a public health emergency is a potentially important step towards combatting the opioid crisis, which continues to wreak havoc on American communities.  In 2016, 336 Rhode Islanders died of accidental drug overdoses, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health. 

“Given the severity of the crisis, we have grown increasingly concerned by reports that the President has done little to make use of his public health emergency declaration, leaving state and local communities without the resources they need to fight the opioid epidemic,” wrote the senators in their letter to GAO.  “Despite saying it would work with Congress, the White House has put forward no proposals for authorizing new funding.”

The Trump administration has yet to officially allocate new funds to address the opioid crisis despite bipartisan calls from governors and legislators to do so.  His new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, has also refused to commit to supporting new funding to address the crisis.  Instead, the president again plans to cut funding for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and has failed to fill key leadership positions that require a deep understanding of this public health crisis – including the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration administrator and the director of the ONDCP.  Telemedicine initiatives the president discussed have not been implemented, and the Department of Labor has yet to issue grants for dislocated workers.

The President’s initial emergency declaration expired on January 23, 2018.  On January 24th, Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan extended the emergency for another 90 days.  To ensure the federal government utilizes all available resources efficiently and effectively to prevent and treat opioid addiction, the senators requested a GAO review on the resources available to the executive branch to combat the opioid epidemic and the steps the Trump administration has taken since declaring the crisis a public health emergency.

Whitehouse is a lead author of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, sweeping bipartisan legislation designed to help save lives and curb the opioid epidemic, which was signed into law in 2016.  The law established a range of federal policies, including programs to increase education on drug use, expand medication-assisted treatment, improve prescription drug monitoring programs, and promote comprehensive state responses to the opioid crisis. 

As a result of the new law, Rhode Island has received $3 million over three years to create Centers of Excellence for Opioid Use Disorders.  The Centers provide rapid access to treatment and comprehensive services for people struggling with opioid addiction.  Ten of these centers, which are a cornerstone of Governor Gina Raimondo’s Overdose Prevention Action Plan, have opened in Rhode Island since September 2016.


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