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'We must act boldly to stop it'

By Stephen Koff • Aug 10, 2017 at 11:16 PM

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's decision to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency was met with bipartisan praise from Ohio politicians and officials.

Trump, speaking Thursday from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, said he is drawing up a declaration to treat the drug problem as a public health emergency ravaging the country.

"The opioid crisis is an emergency," Trump said, "and I'm saying officially right now it is an emergency. It's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis."

This follows a special commission's recommendation that Trump treat addiction and deaths from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids and opiates as a national emergency.

"Our citizens are dying," the commission told the president in a report early last week. "We must act boldly to stop it."

In Ohio, the human toll grows nearly constantly. Last year, more people in Cuyahoga County alone died from heroin and fentanyl overdoses than from homicides, suicides and car crashes.

Yet the president's announcement came as a surprise because Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said Tuesday that the drug crisis could be handled without such a declaration, "although all things are on the table for the president."

With a declaration of a national emergency, the president should be able to more easily direct federal money for treatment, prevention and law enforcement. This could loosen restrictions on how and where money is spent— for example, when it goes for residential treatment programs and how law enforcement accesses tools like drugs to reverse heroin overdoses.

National emergencies are typically called in the case of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters, although public health emergencies have used in targeted approaches to fight diseases, such as President Barack Obama's declaration to fight the zika virus in Puerto Rico. The special commission, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said it was appropriate in a situation in which thousands of Americans are dying from overdoses and families and communities are torn apart.

"With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks," Christie and fellow commission members said in their report to the president.

Trump announced his intention in response to a reporter's question of why he had not declared a national emergency as recommended.

"We're going to draw it up and we're going to make it a national emergency," Trump answered, according to a pool report. "It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.

"You know when I was growing up they had the LSD and they had certain generations of drugs," the president added. "There's never been anything like what's happened to this country over the last four or five years. And I have to say this in all fairness, this is a worldwide problem, not just a United States problem. This is happening worldwide. But this is a national emergency and we are drawing documents now to so attest."

Ohio leads the nation in opioid deaths. The state is suing five pharma companies for flooding the state with prescription painkillers that gave rise to the state's addiction and overdose crisis.

Ohio Democrats joined Republicans in praising Trump's announcement. But Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who represents a district spanning from Toledo to Cleveland's west side, added that Trump could also assure ongoing treatment for addicts by ending his threats to end or weaken the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Medicaid, which was expanded under the act, pays for treatment for low-income Americans.

"This is a good step to provide potentially life-saving relief to the millions of Americans suffering from this crisis," Kaptur said. "Ohio is the epicenter of this crisis, and I know many families will welcome the lifeline of funding that this action will bring."

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who has sponsored bills to boost federal spending on treatment and law enforcement, said, "There is no doubt that this heroin and prescription drug epidemic is a crisis affecting our entire country, and I applaud the president for his decision to declare it a national emergency."

Portman and other lawmakers, including Ohio Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, said they hoped the emergency would prompt Congress to add dollars and manpower to fighting the epidemic. Residential centers are limited under Medicaid rules on the number of drug patients they can take, and Portman and Brown have pushed to expand the number.

Portman wants the U.S. Postal Service to better screen parcels from China, believed to be a major source of fentanyl, a synthetic drug far more potent than heroin. Both senators have called for more steady access to naloxone, a drug that emergency responders can administer on the spot to stop the effects of an overdose.

"While this is an important step, combating the opioid epidemic requires more than words -- it requires meaningful action and investment," Brown said. "Law enforcement officers throughout Ohio have told me that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. I hope that the administration works quickly and prudently to finally take the steps necessary to call this opioid epidemic what it is -- a national emergency -- and follow-up with meaningful action and investment."

Trump, who made the issue a key talking point during his campaign, previously received on an interim report from a commission he appointed that called for declaration of a national emergency. The action would give the administration additional funding and powers, such as negotiating lower prices for overdose reversal drugs, according to the draft.

More than 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA. Most opioid overdose deaths are linked to prescription pain pills, though use of heroin is growing rapidly, accounting for almost 13,000 deaths in 2015, according to NIDA.

Trump also has called for tougher law enforcement, including locking up more drug dealers after what he said was a decline in drug-related prosecutions since 2011, and more aggressive policing at U.S. borders to stop the import of heroin and synthetic opioids.

"I agree with President Trump's decision to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency … because it is one,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, a Republican from Marietta. “He has recognized this from before he was elected — he said it many times during his campaign. More federal help is welcome. However, despite today's decision, this is not a problem we as a country are going to be able to arrest, incarcerate, or legislate our way out of. We all have to be in this effort together."

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©2017 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

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