President Donald Trump’s speech Thursday afternoon naming the opioid crisis a “national public health emergency” wasn’t the bold emergency declaration under the Stafford Act that many agencies and advocates were hoping for.
Yet any increased national attention to the epidemic that’s been particularly devastating to East Tennessee and the Appalachian region is a positive step, many said.
Gov. Bill Haslam said he appreciated the president’s attention to the crisis.
“Over the past several months, our departments have been working together to study this issue and to provide me with options for us to consider as we head into the next budget cycle and legislative session,” Haslam said. “We will prioritize addressing the opioid crisis in our state and are working toward a comprehensive plan that we will bring forward soon.”
Acknowledging the problem is national “is the first step in addressing the crisis across the country,” said Jerry Vagnier, president and CEO of Helen Ross McNabb Center, one of few providers who offer addiction treatment to the uninsured in East Tennessee.
Vagnier said it’s too early to know how the president’s announcement would affect McNabb’s ability to treat more addicts. Although funding is not increasing at this time, White House officials said, states could be given more flexibility in the way certain existing money is used, especially when pertaining to people who have both HIV/AIDS and addiction issues.
“Loosening eligibility requirements opens options for all in our community who are in need, regardless of their insurance or lack of insurance,” Vagnier said.
It also would loosen requirements to allow medically assisted addiction treatment — such as buprenorphine, or Suboxone — through telemedicine, potentially expanding treatment in rural areas. Both McNabb Center and Cherokee Health Systems, a Knoxville-based federally qualified health center that last year opened an addiction-specific clinic, have used telemedicine, although Dennis Freeman, Cherokee’s president and CEO, said the health center has not yet used it specifically to prescribe those medications.
“We’d still want to wrap the other services around, the other support services, such as counseling,” Freeman said.
Cherokee now has one dedicated addiction physician and is in the process of hiring another, Freeman said. But that’s still not enough to meet demand, especially among patients without insurance or money. Often, patients with addiction issues have long neglected their medical care, resulting in chronic health problems.
“It really requires a comprehensive care approach,” Freeman said. “If there’s extra funding to do that, that will be helpful.”
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who has been vocal about the impact of opioids on East Tennessee, was surprised Tuesday to get an invitation to attend the announcement at the White House. Rausch could be seen standing behind the president and first lady Melania Trump as they were speaking.
Rausch said he was encouraged by the president’s understanding of the role of law enforcement, especially working in conjunction with public health, which KPD has been doing for some time.
“When you have the power of the White House behind the effort, that clearly sends a message” that local, state and federal government will work together, Rausch said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the appropriate focus put on prevention. I’m delighted he’s taking that approach.”
Rausch said he hopes with cooperation, more funding for treatment and prevention will come to areas that most need it, including East Tennessee.
David Guth, CEO of Nashville-based Centerstone, said the president’s declaration “will enable more individuals to receive timely, evidence-based care.”
“Recovery from substance abuse, like recovery from any other disease, requires effective, comprehensive treatment and support,” Guth said. “However, additional resources are urgently needed to truly slow the damaging impact this crisis is having on American families and our economy.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander said the announcement will help states “tackle the opioid crisis head-on.”
“Nearly three out of four of the drug overdoses in our state are related to the opioid crisis,” Alexander said. “This is a crisis not just in Tennessee, but across the country, with 91 Americans dying every day from an opioid overdose. Congress took important steps last year by passing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act — which established new programs and encouraged those on the front lines to work together to combat substance abuse, especially opioid abuse — and providing $1 billion in new funding for states to fight the opioid crisis as a part of the 21st Century Cures Act. I look forward to working closely with the Trump administration to see what additional steps Congress should take to help states, doctors, and families address and solve this tragic problem.”
Advocates had been waiting for the declaration since August, when the president first announced he intended to make it.
“This is a long time coming,” said Karen Pershing, executive director of the Knoxville-based nonprofit Metro Drug Coalition. “I’m grateful for any additional assistance we can receive in our state and community to expand access to resources to combat this scourge.
“The 21st Century Cures Act funding was helpful in expanding access to treatment in Tennessee, but we need to also not lose sight of the fact that we are never going to have enough resources to continue to clean up messes after they occur. If we don’t go upstream and focus on preventing addiction before it starts, the disease will continue to devastate individuals and families throughout our community.”
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell praised the president’s announcement and said the opioid task force she convened has made recommendations that will be implemented in January.”This is a step in the right direction, and this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Harwell said. “The General Assembly gives the administration certain flexibilities through the budget each year. Should President Trump’s action require additional adjustments to our budget, I will be ready to meet with the governor to guarantee Tennesseans receive the maximum benefit of this effort.”