In 2015, a reported 52,404 people died of drug overdoses in the United States. That was a record. In one year, overdoses killed nearly as many Americans as those who died in the entire Vietnam War.
Now, data just released on overdose death rates for the first nine months of last year show the epidemic is becoming more severe. Overdoses likely killed more than 60,000 people nationwide in 2016, an increase of nearly 20 percent.
About 60 percent of those deaths are due to opioids like heroin, prescription painkillers and powerful synthetics like fentanyl.
It is in this context that we have to weigh presidential commissions, national declarations and election promises, as well as huge spending cuts that could devastate addiction treatment.
President Donald Trump, briefed on the epidemic last week, is being urged to declare a national emergency by his presidential commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. That’s a necessary step, and one Trump should take as soon as possible.
To his credit, Trump has spoken movingly about the ravages of addiction and promised sweeping action to fight the epidemic after entering politics. His brother died from alcoholism, and Trump’s promises to help areas plagued by addiction was a big selling point in his candidacy. Much of Trump’s attention has been on the idea that a border wall can stop the flow of illegal drugs and stem addiction by cutting the supply, but he also has highlighted more treatment and prevention as priorities.
The actual policies drawn up by Trump’s appointees and the Republican-controlled Congress have sent another message. Health care plans pushed by the GOP in the House of Representatives and Senate would cut Medicaid by at least $600 billion a year, which would devastate addiction treatment.
The budget put forward by the administration would slash money for treatment, prevention and research. And the Justice Department appears intent on filling federal prisons with addicts, instead of treating them, which isn’t what Trump promised on the campaign trail.
Trump’s panel has some good suggestions. They include increasing the availability of treatment with medication, currently offered in only 10 percent of programs, and changing federal Medicaid rules to allow reimbursement to facilities with more than 16 beds. That would be a start, but far more must be done. And that means Trump’s staff and congressional leaders need to follow through on fighting addiction.
This is an emergency. Declaring it as such on the federal level can help. But committing to addressing and stemming the epidemic means spending more and doing more, not saying all the right things while defunding the programs that can make a difference.