The longer we wait for federal funding, more Americans will lose their lives to the opioid epidemic.
I’ve been waiting for months to hear more about President Donald Trump’s promise to call the opioid crisis what it is: a national emergency. It was his chance to do something meaningful on a bipartisan issue. It was an opportunity to put immediate funding into action that could make us — in his words — “the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”
Like many Americans, I was deflated by his declaration of a “public-health emergency.” The opioid crisis certainly is a public-health catastrophe; in a single year it kills more Americans than the Vietnam War, and more than traffic accidents and guns combined. But the president’s declaration fell short of the hoped-for “national emergency” designation.
Labeling this crisis a “public-health emergency” could lead to important progress. It will likely allow easier access to treatment through telemedicine for people in rural areas, reduce red tape at agencies that regulate treatment providers and shift some federal funding to organizations working to stifle the epidemic. But by not declaring a national emergency, President Donald Trump prevents the immediate access to — and limits the scale of — critical federal emergency funds. The longer we wait for funding, it is guaranteed that more Americans will lose their lives to this epidemic.
At Evergreen Treatment Services — the network of medication-assisted treatment facilities I run in Washington state — we work on a shoestring budget due to poor reimbursement rates associated with Medicaid. Trump’s administration, through its determination to cut Medicaid, threatens our ability to serve our patients — many of whom are dependent on this program for their lifesaving treatment. Progress is also stymied by the challenge to site new clinics — mostly due to outdated public understanding of opioid-use disorders and their effective treatment. As an example, we are constantly facing challenges from people who hold the uninformed and incorrect belief that medication-assisted treatment just substitutes one harmful drug for another.
These threats to funding and persistent stigma associated with our treatment and our patients severely hamper our ability to meet the tremendous need in Washington state. Data from the University of Washington show that nearly 10,000 Washingtonians have died of opioid overdose since 1999. The number of people entering into publicly funded opioid treatment increased more than 250 percent across our state since 2002, but that is still only a fraction of the people who need help. In fact, current estimates in King County are that only about 35 percent of those in need of treatment are able to access it.
Despite funding and policy limitations, Evergreen has scraped together resources to expand; we have more than doubled our services in the last four years, opening and expanding clinics to combat the growing epidemic in rural areas of our state. But it isn’t nearly enough. The problem is too overwhelming without increased support at the federal level. Had the president actually declared a national emergency, we would be better equipped to do more, right now.
In the absence of this immediate support, Evergreen and our partner organizations will keep going. We will collaborate with our state and local authorities, businesses and community leaders to make progress. I am confident that we will end this epidemic, but it will take time.
Tragically, more Washingtonians will die in the process.