By: Evan MacDonald
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Federal officials and members of President Donald Trump’s opioid commission on Thursday said additional steps are required before the administration can formally declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency.
Trump, acting on his commission’s recommendation, announced last month that he intended to declare the epidemic a national emergency. The Trump administration has not yet made the formal declaration.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the chairman of the commission, said Thursday at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center that the president is working to ensure government agencies will have “ready access” to resources they will need to combat the epidemic once the national emergency is declared.
Christie did not offer a timetable for such a declaration.
“The biggest problem would be if we did it in a way that was haphazard and less effective,” Christie said. “I’m confident, from talking to the president, that he’s awaiting the best advice that is very soon to come to him. I don’t doubt for a moment his resolve.”
Commission member Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, said a “FEMA-type response,” like the reactions to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, is needed to address the opioid epidemic.
“We’re understanding that, as we see the urgency placed upon these other national disasters, we need to appreciate that there’s an urgency around this national disaster that merits the same comprehensive approach,” Kennedy said.
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway and Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs David Shulkin joined Christie and Kennedy on Thursday the Cleveland VA, which they touted as a national leader in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
“Our goal is really to understand the best practices [for treatment], like those in your facility here,” Conway said. “It’s also to combine a multi-layered approach that takes into account interdiction, treatment and recovery, and prevention.”
Shulkin announced the release of a set of best practices that VA doctors will use in pain management treatment. They encourage healthcare professionals to find alternative treatments rather than painkillers, and to strictly monitor patients to prevent addiction.
The best practices are culled from VA medical centers across the U.S., and will be shared with others in government and the healthcare industry.
The Northeast Ohio VA Healthcare System has been particularly effective at minimizing the use of prescription painkillers in pain management, Shulkin said. The local system has reduced opioid prescriptions by nearly 25 percent since 2010, while other healthcare providers in Northeast Ohio have reduced prescriptions by less than 10 percent, according to VA statistics.
“We’re trying to implement these best practices in more effective ways to be able to replicate what we’re seeing here in Cleveland,” Shulkin said.
Opioid prescriptions are down at VA hospitals across the country. There are 240,000 fewer VA hospital patients using opioids than there were in 2013, Shulkin said.
The president’s commission released an initial report last month that included preliminary recommendations for combating the opioid epidemic. The commission is planning to release a final report Nov. 1, Christie said.
One of the commission’s goals is to push pharmaceutical companies to develop new pain treatments that do not involve opioids, Christie said.
“When we engage the pharmaceutical industry, we want to make sure they understand it’s a national imperative to provide more options to the American people and the medical community beyond opioids and the limited number of other options that are available right now.”
Unintentional drug overdoses killed more than 4,000 people last year in Ohio, a significant spike from 3,050 in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Health. Overdoses killed 666 people in Cuyahoga County last year, up from 370 in 2015.
Officials said the prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid analgesic that is often mixed with heroin, caused last year’s spike in deaths. Fentanyl was a factor in 399 of the 666 overdose deaths reported in Cuyahoga County, according to the medical examiner’s office. The drug’s pervasiveness has risen dramatically in the past three years; fentanyl was involved in five deaths in 2013, 37 in 2014 and 92 in 2015, statistics show.