Trump pledged to solve the opioid crisis, but is proposing to cut programs that combat it

  • Linda Saunders Paquette, president of drug treatment advocacy organization New Futures, speaks as U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen listen at the news conference at Riverbend Monday. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/9/2017 12:45:45 AM

This week will see another visit to New Hampshire from a high-ranking Trump administration official to discuss addiction and opioids.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price will be in Concord on Wednesday, while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made an appearance in March.

Both high-profile visits were intended to acknowledge how serious New Hampshire’s drug problem is, though critics point our that the visits come as the Trump administration pitched steep cuts to federal programs that help state and local officials fight the drug problem on multiple fronts.

The White House is proposing to slash the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy from $388 million to $24 million and end programs including the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas and Drug-Free Communities, according to a draft budget document released Friday.

That came a day after the administration celebrated the U.S. House passing a health care bill that would no longer require insurers to cover substance abuse and mental health services and roll back expanded Medicaid, a program that covers behavioral health services for 60,000 Granite Staters.

Trump campaigned in New Hampshire on the promise he would end the opioid crisis. Now, treatment advocates here say the president’s actions demonstrate he is doing the opposite.

“It appears as if what he says and what he’s doing don’t really compute,” said Linda Saunders Paquette, president of the drug treatment advocacy organization New Futures.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu called the news of the White House’s proposed cuts “very disconcerting.”

“Those are absolutely critical programs to the state,” Sununu said on Friday. “We’ll make sure the folks at the federal level, the Trump administration, the Attorney General and his team understand how important those programs are to make sure we’re successful on the front.”

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, also known as HIDTA, is a federal grant program that provides assistance and training to federal, state and local law enforcement dealing with drug supply.

“Our guys do an awful lot of work in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire,” New England HIDTA director J.T. Fallon said in a recent interview. “We sponsor initiatives in New Hampshire.”

Fallon said his office works closely with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and state and local police all over New England, but they also work with health providers to educate on responsible prescribing of opioids.

While HIDTA deals with the law enforcement aspect of the opioid crisis, the federal Drug-Free Communities grant program provides a large portion of funding to New Hampshire’s drug prevention programs.

New Hampshire receives $1.625 million per year for prevention programs disbursed to 13 grantees all over the state, including North Country Health Consortium in Littleton, Monadnock Alcohol and Drug Abuse Coalition in Keene, and the Raymond Coalition for youth.

At a press conference Monday, New Hampshire Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen took aim at the proposed cuts.

“I think it’s totally nuts,” Shaheen stated flatly. “There doesn’t seem to be an appreciation for the fact that all these programs work together, and if we get rid of the drug czar, then we don’t have anybody to take leadership to make sure the agencies are producing what they’re supposed to produce.”

Hassan, the state’s former Democratic governor, said the cuts would undermine the work of the state’s law enforcement agencies and called it “deeply, deeply concerning.”

The senators and other health providers also criticized the House passing the American Health Care Act, which would drastically cut expanded Medicaid.

The Republican health care plan would eliminate more than $800 billion from Medicaid, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated of the previous bill that cut would cause 14 million people to lose coverage through Medicaid by 2026. The current bill still needs to be passed by the Senate, which is likely to make significant changes.

“The Trumpcare bill is further destabilizing the health care economy and is further undermining the efforts on things like substance misuse,” Hassan said Monday.

Ending the opioid crisis was one of Trump’s repeated promises as he campaigned in New Hampshire during the 2016 election.

The president recently created an opioids commission led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and has held listening sessions about the drug crisis at the White House.

The Trump administration has also signaled it will crack down on recreational marijuana use in the United States, enforcing federal marijuana laws even in states that have legalized it.

“There’s still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a February briefing. “When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around the country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people.”

Trump said that building a border wall between the United States and Mexico would help stop the flow of drugs, but he also proposed boosting access to treatment, pledging to “dramatically expand access to treatment slots and end Medicaid policies that obstruct inpatient treatment.”

Trump’s plans to build a border wall have stalled. Funding for the wall was not included in a recent omnibus spending bill passed by Congress, and White House officials have said the president may be open to a budget agreement that includes money for increased border security, rather than construction of a new wall.

Saunders Paquette said solving the opioid crisis is going to take a lot more than a wall between the United States and Mexico.

“He says he’s going to address the opioid crisis by building the wall, but this crisis is so complex and complicated,” she said. “We need a system of response that includes access to treatment, recovery, and also, we have to address the supply side through supporting law enforcement in their work. I’m not seeing evidence that that’s actually happening.”

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