Watching Gov. Christie play the role of a fawning sycophant to Donald Trump got old a long time ago. To see a repeat of the performance last Thursday when the president backed off his earlier support of Christie’s strategy to attack the opioid crisis was nauseating.
Christie, a lame duck who hoped in vain for a position in Trump’s cabinet, instead was chosen to head the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. It was a job the governor tackled with gusto. The panel issued a report in early August recommending that the opioid epidemic be declared a “national emergency.”
That status is what the problem deserves, putting it on equal footing with natural disasters such as hurricanes and major floods, which trigger an influx of federal funds to take care of victims and repair communities. With opioids killing more than 140 people a day, the epidemic is deadlier than any storm.
Trump, as is his bent, was enthusiastic in his support for the commission’s work. Without making an official declaration, he, too used the words “national emergency” to describe the situation, calling it “a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.” And then, he did nothing.
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. As they did, word got out that despite what the president had said, others in the administration were not eager to grant opioid deaths “national emergency” status. That might mean diverting money like the funds being sent to Texas and Florida, which are recovering from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Trump changed his mind, which he has been known to do, and decided to declare the opioid crisis a “public health emergency,” a designation that only lasts 90 days although it can be repeated. It will have to be. Three months isn’t enough time to count all the opioid addicts in America, not to mention try to get them into effective treatment and off the mean streets where many are trying survive.
Even if Christie knew it would do little good to complain about Trump’s rejection of his commission’s recommendation, he didn’t have to act like everything was hunky-dory. He knows the extent of the problem and that Trump’s declaration of a “public health emergency” is inadequate. Yet, he defended the president, saying he had given “hope” to families with addicts.
It wasn’t much hope. The last time a “public health emergency” was declared it was to address the H1N1 influenza virus, which left more than 12,000 Americans dead from April 2009 to April 2010. That’s 33 deaths a day, a terrible figure, but not the estimated 142 lives a day that opioid addiction is taking.
Instead of dedicating new funds to fight opioids, Trump’s declaration will waive some regulations to give states more flexibility in how they use federal public health funds. It will also allow Medicaid payments at larger substance rehabilitation facilities, which is ironic, given Trump’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.) criticized Trump’s opioid response as “a Band-Aid when we need a tourniquet.” Others more generously described it as a first step. Many more are needed.
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