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Matching bold words with action to tackle opioids

In dozens of visits to New Hampshire during the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump pledged aggressive action to combat the opioid crisis. And last month, President Trump stated his intention to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency. These are fine words, but it’s time for action. The president and Congress must mobilize a stepped-up federal response that is equal to this growing nationwide crisis.

In its final report last month, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis noted that drug overdoses now result in more fatalities than gun homicides and car crashes combined. This still-uncontrolled epidemic has escalated sharply with the arrival of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which are dramatically more potent and addictive. Traffickers no longer depend on imported opioids; all they need is a laboratory and chemicals.

The opioid epidemic is America’s No. 1 public health and law enforcement challenge, and it requires a national response that is comprehensive and robust. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) — which requires all private health insurance plans to cover treatment for substance use disorders — continues to play a critical role. Medicaid expansion under the ACA has made it possible for an estimated 1.3 million Americans with substance use disorders to get treatment.

Addiction is a chronic illness, and the right approach is prevention and treatment, not sweeping the problem under the rug by throwing people in jail. But effective law enforcement — including muscular federal support for state and local efforts — also plays an essential role. For example, heroin traffickers expressly target New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, where law enforcement in rural areas often is spread thin and lacks resources. On the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, on which I serve as ranking member, our bipartisan legislation for fiscal 2018 provides $158 million for grants to state and local governments to fund a balanced approach of law enforcement, treatment and recovery. Our bill rejects the administration’s proposal to eliminate COPS anti-heroin task force grants and provides higher funding for grants authorized under the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. The Appropriations Committee also rejected the administration’s deep cuts to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s programs to combat opioid misuse.

We need to bolster efforts to mobilize communities and engage young people in preventing opioid misuse. Case in point: Studies show that young people who use prescription opioids to treat sports injuries are particularly at risk. Early this year, I introduced the Student and Student Athlete Opioid Misuse Prevention Act, the first major legislative effort to assist the high school and collegiate sports communities in sponsoring opioid prevention programs aimed at students and student athletes.

To date, however, one all-important piece is missing in the nationwide fight against the opioid epidemic: appropriate resources. As I talk with health care professionals and law enforcement officers on the front lines, time and again I hear about the lack of resources to marshal a decisive, well-coordinated response. On good days, our first responders and treatment providers are barely able to keep up. On bad days, they are overwhelmed. 

I applaud the president for pledging to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency. It’s time, now, to mobilize federal resources commensurate with this extraordinary challenge. In the weeks ahead, Congress will provide tens of billions of dollars to address the national emergency created by Hurricane Harvey, which caused at least 60 confirmed deaths. To address the opioid national emergency, which is killing nearly 90 Americans every day, we need a dramatic infusion of new resources for policing, prevention, treatment and recovery. Rising to this challenge is a test for Congress and our nation. With so many lives at stake, this is a test we must not fail.

Shaheen is the senior senator from New Hampshire.