Hope amid the opioid crisis? Glimmers of progress since Trump declared national emergency

Almost a year since President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, the scourge remains one of the biggest killers in America.

But after Trump vowed to deploy the full weight of the government to “liberate” Americans from this addiction, glimmers of hope are starting to emerge.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that in 2017, about 11.4 million people misused opioids – down from 12.7 million people in 2016. And 81,100 people abused opioids for the first time in 2017 compared with 170,000 new users in 2016.

In an encouraging turn, 56 percent of people sought treatment for their addiction in 2017, up from 37 percent in 2016.

Psychiatrist Sally Satel, with the American Enterprise Institute, predicted that most opioid-addiction trendlines “will continue to go down as they’ve been going down” this year.

But she said the progress that’s being made is happening on local levels. While the Trump declaration redirected federal money and cleared red tape for state and local officials -- including demanding each Cabinet department claim a role in tackling this epidemic -- many health experts believe the declaration will have limited effect without major new sources of funding.

Some of the trends also are continuing to move in the wrong direction.

In 2017, a record 72,000 people died from overall drug overdoses, up by 10 percent from the year before. To put that in perspective, the National Safety Council estimates 40,000 people died in car accidents in 2017, and about 15,549 died in gun violence, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization. Overdose deaths overwhelm both categories combined.

Further, fentanyl overdoses accounted for nearly 30,000 of the overall 72,000 deaths.

It’s a sobering reality that many Americans are still losing their battle to opioid addiction while the federal government is finding a way to stave off this epidemic.

But amid the feverish midterm campaign season, the daily clashes in Washington over the Russia probe and, most recently, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation battle, Congress has moved to tackle the problem.

In a show of rare bipartisan support in the middle of the Kavanaugh controversy, the Senate on Oct. 5 passed an opioid abuse bill, 98-1, to deal with the crisis. The House voted 398-8 in the last week of September.

Trump is expected to sign the legislation – which would effectively coincide with the Oct. 26 anniversary of declaring the opioid crisis a national public health emergency.

Overall, the bill provides first responders access to more naloxone in order to reverse overdoses.

It demands the U.S. Postal Office have electronic data on foreign packages so that Customs agents can track illegal shipments of fentanyl from China and Mexico. Fentanyl, a more potent synthetic opioid, is the leading cause of overdose deaths.

Treatment would be expanded for Medicare recipients. Grant money would be provided to organizations to create opioid recovery centers in communities. The Department of Health and Human Services would be tasked to find the best procedures and policies for these programs. The FDA, further, would be required to limit the opioid doses prescribed to only three to seven days.

As local municipalities grapple with ways to undo the damage that opioids have caused in their communities, they continue to need more money.

Congress in March appropriated $4.7 billion for the opioid epidemic, funding that should make its way to addiction treatment facilities.

Satel said these facilities help with “counseling, housing, and job support,” in turn helping people “create a life that’s worth staying sober for.”

The White House, meanwhile, recently held a “Best Practices in Combatting the Opioid Epidemic Conference” led by Counselor Kellyanne Conway. The administration met with state and local leaders from across the country to discuss strategies in the opioid addiction fight in their ongoing “commitment to help increase prevention, interdiction and access to treatment.”