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After meeting, Sununu says Trump open to doling out drug money differently

  • Gov. Chris Sununu speaks with the Monitor in Bedford on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Tuesday, October 03, 2017

It’s a growing contradiction: New Hampshire, the state with the second-highest opioid overdose mortality rate per capita, receives some of the smallest shares in federal dollars to fight the crisis.

But following a meeting with President Donald Trump on Monday, Gov. Chris Sununu said he thinks that could change.

Speaking with Trump in the Oval Office alongside a handful of fellow Republican governors, Sununu said he brought up the problem directly: Small states like New Hampshire suffer some of the greatest tolls of the opioid epidemic, but federal assistance funds are often apportioned based on population and not need.

That means states like New York and California have received large shares of federal dollars despite having fewer per capita opioid deaths, while smaller states like Kentucky and New Hampshire have taken in far less.

The president, Sununu said, was receptive to the concern.

“Oh, he got it 100 percent,” Sununu said in a news conference after the meeting. “No, he absolutely got it. It’s just another example of Congress throwing a lot of money on kind of a feel-good situation without really understanding the implication of the dollars they were appropriating.”

The meeting with Trump was cut back from what was originally scheduled so Trump could address the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed at least 59 people early Monday.

Sununu said he and Republican Gov. Paul LePage of Maine told Trump that money set aside for the opioid crisis has to be targeted using outcome-based data. He said the president, a former businessman, understood.

“This is a testing ground for his next round of funding that we think is going to be much more directed and really focus the dollars where the crisis really is.,” Sununu said.

Concerns over the funding have grown for months.

On Sept. 22, the Department of Justice announced it would award $59 million to states and counties under the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a bipartisan congressional effort to boost the fight against the opioid crisis.

But four of New Hampshire’s five grant applications were rejected, said Tom Kaempfer, director of the Grant Management Program at the New Hampshire Department of Justice.

In the end, only $400,000 – 0.7 percent – went to the Granite State, Kaempfer said, noting that the money will help the state continue its prescription-drug monitoring program.

The funding announcement prompted Democratic congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter to send a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday about New Hampshire’s allotted share, which she called “grossly insufficient.”

In the letter, Shea-Porter pointed to visits to New Hampshire made by Sessions and other Trump administration staffers in response to the opioid crisis.

“Given the commitment you have expressed, please explain why your Department has rejected these four New Hampshire grant applications and awarded New Hampshire less than 1 (percent) of the total amount nationwide,” Shea-Porter wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Justice Programs, which administers the grants, said the office had not yet formally received the letter. She directed queries to the main communications office at the Department of Justice, which was not available for comment by press time.

According to the Bureau of Justice, the selection process was competitive. New Hampshire was one of 182 applicants for the grants; the office had funds for only 50 grants, or 27 percent of those who applied, officials said.

But it is not clear how decisions were made on applications. Some applications that stressing the high per-capita mortality rate in the Granite State were dismissed. A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Justice said unsuccessful applications would receive feedback from the department in the coming weeks.

The allocation issue has appeared before. In December 2016, Congress passed $1 billion in state appropriations to tackle opioids through the 21st Century Cures Act. But in February, a funding formula change by the federal agency tasked with distributing the money spread the funds based on population size and not need.

New Hampshire received one of the smallest portions of funding in the country, while Texas, which has the fourth-lowest overdose mortality rate per capita, received the highest.

A White House spokesperson was not immediately available to confirm Sununu’s account of the Oval Office meeting.

But Sununu said he was confident that Trump received the message.

“He completely understands those concepts, and I think we’re going to have a lot more success in terms of making sure (New Hampshire’s) needs are at the forefront as we move forward,” he said.

And Shea-Porter, reacting to the comments, expressed optimism.

“It’s promising that Governor Sununu says President Trump understands that the Administration’s allocation of funding to fight the opioid crisis has been unfair to New Hampshire,” she said, adding she would work with anyone to “advocate for the resources our state needs to turn the tide on this raging public health crisis.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at
@edewittNH.)