ECLECTIC RANT: Mostly Symbolic Declaration of Opioid Crisis a National Public Health Emergency

Ralph E. Stone
Tuesday November 07, 2017 - 02:29:00 PM

On October 26, 2017, President Donald Trump declared that the opioid crisis is a national health emergency. Better late than never, considering that about 64,000 died from drug overdoses in 2016. In San Francisco, deaths from opioids were from 100 to 120 per year from 2006 to 2014. 

Trump's declaration was largely symbolic. Symbols are important, but he failed to announce new federal money for local addiction treatment programs. The danger, of course, is that future federal funds will be redirected from other health care programs to the opioid crisis. 

Another "Just say no" campaign won't end the opioid crisis. What is desperately needed is increased funding for treatment, prevention, education, and recovery support services, as well as research to identify and promote strategies to reduce demand. President Obama changed the long-standing policy on combatting the growing opioid painkiller and heroine epidemic through public health, not criminal justice, programs. The Trump administration has reversed this policy. About 80,000 Americans are incarcerated for drug-related crimes alone. Harsher drug policies are costly and bring a low rate of return. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that prescription opioid abuse, dependence and overdoses cost the public sector $23 billion a year, with a third of that attributable to crime. An additional $55 billion per year reflects private-sector costs attributable to productivity losses and health care expenses. 

Unfortunately, the drug industry worked with members of Congress to pass a little-noticed 2016, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016) that sabotaged the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) anti-opioid efforts. Remember Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who Trump had named as his anti-drug czar, recently had to withdraw his name from consideration. He was the primary sponsor of the lobbyist-written legislation to hamstring the DEA, all in pursuit of making drug enforcement less of a nuisance to deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies.  

Marino's bill changed the standard under which the DEA could intervene when it saw suspicious behavior – kind of like introducing a new rule that all students need to get straight A's in order to graduate and then acting surprised when the graduation rate falls. Selling opioid painkillers is big business for Big PHARMA

In July, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced that she is expanding her wide-ranging investigation into the causes of the current opioid epidemic by requesting information and documents from four additional pharmaceutical manufacturers and three opioid distributors.  

In September Senator McCaskill released a report on the initial findings of her investigation into whether pharmaceutical manufacturers played a part in the overutilization and overprescription of prescription opioids nationwide that have contributed to America's opioid epidemic. 

Now, Sen. Claire McCaskill has introduced legislation (S-1960) to repeal the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016 that hampered the DEA. 

If Trump declaration of an opioid emergency is to more than symbolic, he should begin by urging Congress to pass S-1960. You can bet big PHARMA will go all out to defeat it.