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Gov. John Bel Edwards says Trump's opioid addiction declaration is 'a very good first start' in tackling problem

The Advocate - 10/27/2017

Oct. 27--WASHINGTON -- With Louisiana's governor and health secretary among the dozens of officials looking on at the White House, President Donald Trump on Thursday moved toward declaring a federal public health emergency in the ongoing national crisis of opioid addiction.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who'd traveled to Washington at the invitation of the White House, called the president's move "a very good first start" in tackling the wave of addiction to painkillers and heroin.

Trump joined Edwards and several other governors-- a group that included both Democrats and Republicans -- in a meeting just before the afternoon announcement to discuss the alarming rise over the last several years in overdose deaths and people hooked on the powerful drugs.

The president's move highlighted a large advertising campaign against drug use and gives federal agencies additional flexibility to redirect existing funds toward fighting opioid addiction and responding to overdoses.

But the declaration does not immediately deliver any additional federal money to tackle the crisis.

Edwards said the declaration would, for example, allow Louisiana to use federal dollars currently earmarked to fight HIV/AIDs to battle opioid addiction instead. But the governor said, given the state's ongoing struggle with high HIV infection rates, doing so wouldn't be a solution to the crisis.

"We're looking forward to Congress appropriating money and allowing us to implement the strategies we know are effective," Edwards said.

Trump administration officials said that they plan to urge Congress to replenish a public health emergency fund that's sat nearly empty for years. It currently contains a mere $57,000, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Some state leaders and Capitol Hill Democrats had urged Trump to declare the opioid crisis an emergency under the Stafford Act, the federal law aimed at natural disasters, which would've freed up the same funds states tap in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, criticized the president's new declaration as "words without the money."

Lawmakers and leaders from a number of states hard-hit by opioid addiction also joined Edwards at the White House ceremony, including Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, and West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican.

Edwards said that, although several other states were hit harder and earlier by the wave of deadly overdoses and other health issues unleashed by opioid addiction, the numbers of overdose deaths in Louisiana have been alarming.

The governor said deaths statewide from opioid overdoses doubled between 2014 and 2016, claiming more than 1,000 lives last year. More people died from drug overdoses than were killed in homicides or car crashes in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans last year, a development that alarmed public health and law enforcement officials.

Edwards said his administration is reaching out to other states in an effort to copy effective programs aimed to cutting down on overdose deaths, fighting addiction and rooting out abuse of prescription painkillers.

"We're going to bring as many of those things to Louisiana that we reasonably can," Edwards said. "We have a real sense of urgency about this -- the problem is every bit as bad as the president characterized it today."

Trump noted that, nationally, at least 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, a staggering figure that amounts to 175 deaths per day.

"Beyond the shocking death toll, the terrible measure of the opioid crisis includes the families ripped apart and, for many communities, a generation of lost potential and opportunity," Trump said Thursday. "This epidemic is a national health emergency, unlike many of us we've seen and what we've seen in our lifetimes."

"As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue," the president added.

Among those in the audience at the White House were local police chiefs and parents who'd lost children to drug overdoses.

The president also spoke about his own personal experience with addiction: his older brother, Fred Trump Jr., died of alcoholism. Trump said his brother's struggles and warnings are the reason he doesn't drink.

Leading up to the announcement, Trump had said he wanted to give his administration the "power to do things that you can't do right now." As a candidate, he had pledged to make fighting addiction a priority, and pressed the issue in some of the states hardest hit.

Once in office, Trump assembled a commission, led by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, to study the problem. The commission's interim report argued an emergency declaration would free additional money and resources, but some in Trump's administration disagreed.

As a result of the public health emergency declaration, officials will be able to expand access to telemedicine services to include substance abuse treatment for people living in rural and remote areas. Officials will also be able to more easily deploy state and federal workers and secure Department of Labor grants for the unemployed.

Edwards said Trump also indicated his administration would make it easier to keep those covered by Medicaid in longer-term addiction treatment programs.

But "the devil is in the details," Edwards noted, and state officials will reach out to federal bureaucrats on Friday for guidance on how those changes might be implemented.

Edwards said he and officials from other states also urged Trump to use the federal government's purchasing power to lower the cost of certain key drugs, including the overdose antidote naloxone.

"I'm hopeful the president is going to move in that direction as well," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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(c)2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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