Our Opinion: Opioid plan short on funds to back words

In his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised he would tackle the nation's opioid crisis. On Thursday, some nine months into his presidency, Trump tackled an opioid photo-op instead.

In a White House ceremony, the president declared the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency. But the declaration was conspicuously lacking in action items and new financial appropriations, much to the dismay of communities nationwide on the front lines of the epidemic, including the Berkshires.

"It's disgraceful," Kurt Isaacson, CEO of Spectrum Health Systems, a nonprofit addiction-treatment provider based in central Massachusetts, told The Boston Globe. "If you're just talking about something, and you're not doing anything actionable, then the words are kind of hollow." His concerns were echoed by Governor Baker.

Mr. Trump declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency rather than a national emergency — and the distinction matters. The declaration, which lasts for 90 days and can be renewed, does not automatically put federal funding towards the crisis, which claimed more than 59,000 lives nationwide last year. That's what many advocates were hoping for.

Instead, the declaration directs federal agencies to put existing grant funds towards efforts to combat opioid abuse. Administration officials also said they would urge Congress during year-end budget negotiations to add new funding to a public health emergency fund. That fund, as it stands, contains just $57,000, a mere pittance. Mr. Trump's plan would also bypass a rule that bars Medicaid funding from being used for many drug rehabilitation centers. Since the announcement, there has been discussion in Congress about giving the Veterans Administration and Medicaid the resources to address the opioid addiction, but this must go beyond lip service to concrete plans backed by funding — and soon.

While it's certainly important for the president to declare out loud a public health problem, it's even more important for him to bring the full power of his office to bear — in this case, in the form of immediate financial support toward proven programs and initiatives in dire need of resources. For instance, money from the federal government that would enable addicts to seek medical care is currently in jeopardy as a Republican Congress seeks once again to gut Medicaid funding. We didn't hear anything about that from the president on Thursday. There remains a grim shortage of beds in treatment centers both locally and nationally. We didn't hear anything about that either. The fight against the opioid addiction crisis must be a three-pronged one — local, state and national. Berkshire communities have shown they're willing to do what it takes. The Trump administration has thus far not proven itself a serious stakeholder.

Those on the front lines of the opioid addiction crisis were hoping to hear full-throated federal support from the president, but Thursday's ceremony amounted to a whimper followed by the click of the cameras. Opioid victims, their families and their communities deserved more.


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