Opioid addiction is a medical epidemic, a law-enforcement crisis and now officially an emergency in two states whose governors are taking steps to increase funding to fight it. Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, allotting $27 million in funds for prevention and treatment services for opioid addiction. Florida followed Maryland, which was the first state to declare a state of emergency related to the opioid crisis in March, when it unlocked $50 million in new funding over a five-year period allocated for the epidemic.
In 2015, overdoses of opioids — both street drugs such as heroin and prescription medications such as oxycodone — caused more than 33,000 deaths across the United States. The declared states of emergency give the respective governors power to spend funds immediately for prevention and treatment efforts, without seeking approval from the Legislature. According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, opioids were responsible for deaths of 3,896 people in 2015. In Maryland, there were 1,089 opioid-related deaths in the same year.
In March, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement, “We need to treat this crisis the exact same way we would treat any other state emergency. … We must cut through the red tape so that we are empowering the important work being done in our many state agencies and at the local level all across our state. This is about taking an all-hands-on-deck approach so that together we can save the lives of thousands of Marylanders.”
The state of emergency “delegates emergency powers to state and local emergency management officials, enabling them to fast-track coordination among state and local agencies and community organizations, including private sector and nonprofit entities, to ensure whole-community involvement,” Maryland’s office of the governor told Yahoo News.
Florida’s Scott expressed a similar sentiment last week when signing the executive order: “Families across our nation are fighting the opioid epidemic,” he said in a statement. “The individuals struggling with drug use are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends, and each tragic case leaves loved ones searching for answers and praying for help.” The newly freed-up funds will reportedly be distributed to regions based proportionally on opioid-related deaths in the area.
The signing of Maryland and Florida’s states of emergency come at a time when the Trump administration continues to offer an unclear plan as to how it will combat the epidemic on a federal level.
On Friday, the White House unveiled proposed cuts by 95 percent to the 2018 budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, from $388 million to $24 million. Known as the office of the drug czar, the ONDCP is set up to reduce illicit drug use, trafficking and its consequences. The proposed cuts came a day after the American Health Care Act, the replacement of Obamacare, passed in the House.
If the AHCA becomes law, many people who are currently eligible to receive addiction recovery treatment through Medicaid may lose those services. Furthermore, substance abuse and recovery could now be considered a preexisting condition under the new plan, allowing insurance companies to deny an individual care because of it.
Trump acknowledged the opioid addiction crisis several times during his campaign, promising to “stop the heroin from pouring in” to the country. In March, the president appeared to attempt to make good on his campaign promise, creating a White House Opiate Task Force led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Trump said: “We want to help those who have become so badly addicted. … This is a total epidemic, and I think it is probably un-talked about compared to the severity we are witnessing.”
But his budget proposals since taking office offer a stark contrast to his promises on the trail, experts say.
What will happen if the AHCA passes into law is that the burden will be shifted from the national system to the state system, said Scott Novak, PhD, senior research scientist and manager in opioids and substance abuse research at Battelle Memorial Institute.
“A lot of states simply don’t have the appropriate resources to deal with a public health problem like this one,” continued Novak.
Opioids — both prescription medications and street drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil— are now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. The 33,000 deaths in 2015 were more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of those involved prescription opioids.
Experts acknowledge the complexity of the crisis, in which addicts often begin with a legally prescribed painkiller and later turn to a cheaper, more potent high from illicit drugs like heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil.
“The opioid crisis is different than other drug crises in our history in that abusers have a different pathway to addiction — through pain medication, pharmacies — than other addicts,” Faye Taxman, professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University, told Yahoo News. “The new strategy must reduce the barriers to treatment and also provide for a path to deal with the stigma of having a drug addiction problem.”
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