Sununu, Shaheen say more funding needed to combat opioid crisis

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen holds up opioids during a drug take-back event at the Concord Police Department on Friday. PAUL STEINHAUSER—

For the Monitor
Published: 10/27/2017 3:19:27 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu says he’s not disappointed that President Donald Trump declared the drug crisis gripping New Hampshire and the nation a public health emergency rather than a more sweeping national emergency.

And the Granite State’s Republican governor told the Monitor that “Congress now needs to step up” to allocate the additional federal funds needed to battle the opioid epidemic, which has afflicted New Hampshire particularly hard.

The state’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, agreed that “we need more resources” to battle substance misuse. In an interview with the Monitor on Friday, she outlined the actions she’s taken, adding, “I hope the governor will support those efforts.”

The comments from Sununu and Shaheen came the morning after the president’s declaration.

The public health emergency announced by the president green lights public health agencies to redirect their existing resources to the drug crisis, cuts bureaucratic delays in hiring key personnel, and allows the Department of Health and Human Services to waive regulations and gives states more flexibility in how they use federal funds.

But the declaration doesn’t include any extra federal money that many states say is essential to battle the epidemic. Trump’s move is also smaller in scope that what his own opioid commission had recommended. And it falls short of what the president said last week, and in August, when he declared that “we’re going to make it a national emergency.”

In dozens of campaign stops in New Hampshire during the marathon 2016 president election cycle, then candidate Trump vowed to take action to end the epidemic if elected to the White House.

Sununu attended the White House event where the president made his opioid declaration, as did Shaheen and New Hampshire’s junior U.S. Senator, Democrat Maggie Hassan.

The governor praised Trump, saying “I thought that was a tremendous speech and a tremendous foot forward, that the president put for this country. He talked passionately. He talked about his own personal experiences in his family in terms of addiction. That just hasn’t been seen before in this country.”

While applauding the president’s move, the state’s all Democratic congressional delegation was uniform in saying that it was just a first step and more funding and resources will be needed.

Sununu pushed back, saying “the president doesn’t just have a checkbook in his back pocket. The last time I checked, Congress has to stand up and provide appropriations. That’s how the system works.”

“Now it is time for Congress to step up and provide appropriations to get this thing moving forward,” the state’s first GOP governor in a dozen years added.

Shaheen and Hassan are co-sponsors on a bill that calls for $45 billion to battle the epidemic over the next 10 years.

“I hope the president will put his support behind those resources. It’s something he promised New Hampshire, so we’re going to continue to fight for that because we can’t address this epidemic ... unless we get the resources that law enforcement needs, that we need for people in recovery, that we need for treatment, that we need for prevention,” Shaheen said.

The senator highlighted that she’s “been working on this issue for years now and helped get $1 billion passed in the 21st Century Cures bill to address the heroin and opioid epidemic – $500 million for this year and $500 million for next year, and I’m going to keep at it.”

The 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama last December, authorizes $6.3 billion to battle mental health and substance misuse disorders. But New Hampshire was only allocated $6.2 million over the first two years of the law.

The Granite State ranks second in the country, behind West Virginia, in the number of opioid-related deaths per capita. And it ranks first in the nation for fentanyl-related deaths relative to its population.

Sununu said that Congress “made a small step last year with the Cures Act. Frankly we didn’t get nearly enough money as we should in this state out of that.”

And he urged the state’s delegation and Congress as a whole to work with the White House.

“When you have an administration that is willing to work with you, you’ve got to be right there working with them. I’m thrilled to see that they were there and joined the president to at least come to watch the speech,” Sununu said. “Funding needs to follow and I have full confidence that we’ll see something shortly.”

While emphasizing that more needs to be done, Shaheen gave credit to the president.

“By declaring a public health emergency, it helps raise awareness. He also talked about some very positive steps that will be important as we address this. One of those is lifting the cap on the numbers of beds for in-treatment patients for reimbursement under Medicaid. That’s a very positive step. We need that here in New Hampshire,” Shaheen said.

The Trump administration has gone more than nine months without a permanent director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the drug czar. Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, the administration’s nominee for the position, withdrew his name from consideration last week after a well-publicized media report that he pushed a measure that weakened government enforcement of suspicious drug distributors.

There’s speculation that former Congressman Frank Guinta is once again being considered for the job. The Republican who represented New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District for two terms, co-founded the Heroin Task Force along with 2nd Congressional District Congresswoman Annie Kuster. The group, which started with just a handful of lawmakers, now has over 90 members.

Asked by the Monitor if Guinta would make a good drug czar, Shaheen said, “I think that it would be helpful to have somebody who knows New Hampshire, who knows the challenges that we face, and who is committed to this issue. And so I’m open to a variety of potential choices.”

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