This editorial is part of the WCPO.com project, Heroin: How Do We Respond?
In 2014, President Barack Obama asked Congress for emergency funding of $6.2 billion to fight Ebola. Congress wasted little time in approving nearly all of his request.
President Donald Trump officially declared the heroin crisis a public health emergency last week. The official recognition, although long overdue, was welcome. But unfortunately, he made no request to Congress for emergency funding.
If addiction was Ebola, maybe it would get the attention it needs.
Only one person died from Ebola in the U.S.
Drug overdoses killed more than 64,000 people in 2016 alone.
What is the real emergency? And more importantly, where is the money that’s needed to stop the dying?
That’s what we heard from members of WCPO’s Heroin Advisory Group who reacted to Trump’s announcement this week.
"I was glad to hear this announcement but will there be any funding tied to it?"
-- Anita Prater, director, Brighton Recovery Center for Women
The answer is no, at least not right away.
The declaration came with no immediate request for emergency funding.
Among our advisory group, there was, at best, some hope that the announcement would raise public awareness of the problem and help end the stigmatization that’s often blamed for the less-than-vigorous response. But mostly, there was disappointment.
"Calling the opioid epidemic a public health emergency might remove some of the stigma … I want the federal government to join the battle, allocate funds, and save lives. Instead we get a nudge. This epidemic is like a huge ship that we need to get turned around. I’ll take every nudge we can get."
-- Dorothy McIntosh Shuemake, mother of Alison, who died of an overdose Aug. 26, 2015 at the age of 18.
Dr. Judith Feinberg started Cincinnati’s needle exchange program and is a nationally recognized public health expert. She called out the lack of funding:
“This is just a bait and switch: pretending there's concern over this major loss of life without a single penny committed to it … this is all smoke and mirrors, and sadly not a real fix for anything to do with the opioid crisis."
-- Dr. Judith Feinberg
So did Tom Synan, advisory group member, a police chief and chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, who spoke this week at a national opiate forum.
“The declaration will not treat this as the emergency it is. We can stamp out the impact addiction is having if we are brave enough to think about it differently, treat it differently … Funding is action; all else is just words.”
-- Tom Synan
Tonya Revilla lost her son Jeremy to an overdose on July 1, 2016. He was 23. Like the many others who suffer the loss of a child, she’s frustrated by the lack of action.
"I’ve heard a lot of talk from Trump and other officials, but not much action. We need action! We need funding! If we do these things NOW it will save our tax dollars down the road. There has been plenty of time to work on solutions, why aren't people acting? I think that unless you or your family have been touched by this, it doesn't exist! We need everyone on board!"
-- Tonya Revilla
Dr. Feinberg pointed out that while Trump declared an emergency he is also pushing for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA opened up the possibility of addiction treatment for millions. In Ohio alone, 275,000 people became newly eligible for treatment, and two-thirds of those suffered from some sort of substance abuse problem, according to Ohio’s Medicaid director.
“The changes that the administration has made to the ACA marketplace will restrict addiction care for many people. In our treatment program of 550 people, 90 percent are covered by Medicaid. And the only way we got our syringe-exchange clients into treatment programs in Ohio was to sign them up for the ACA.”
-- Dr. Judith Feinberg
It’s a sad fact that years into this epidemic, the response has not nearly matched the scale of the problem. Dr. Mike Kalfas, advisory group member and physician who treats many recovering addicts, welcomed the declaration as a first step.
“It's been a long time coming, and by long I mean more than just the last nine months. It's more like several years coming. This is a great first step but it shouldn't be our last step."
-- Dr. Mike Kalfas
More money is needed, and lots of it. Even Trump’s drug czar, Gov. Chris Christie, acknowledged in a TV interview that it will take “billions.”
“Without money, you don't have treatment capacity, you can't hire the people to help that you need to, you can't get facilities, you can't get beds when those are needed."
-- Dr. Mike Kalfas
So the emergency declaration is just a start. What needs to happen next is a sustained commitment that includes stepped-up funding.
“We shouldn't just say okay it's one and done. We just declared war on something and it's going to be a long war."
-- Dr. Kalfas