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Opioid Crisis Needs National Leadership

After months of delay, President Donald Trump has promised to declare America’s opioid abuse epidemic a national emergency, offering a brief and faint glimmer of hope that something might at last be done about the crisis.

The White House’s attention is long overdue. The epidemic claimed the lives of at least 64,000 people in 2016, including 1,631 in Tennessee, which ranks second in the country in opioid prescriptions per capita and ninth in drug-related deaths per 100,000 population.

Unfortunately, what appeared to be progress on the opioid front was tempered by a report by the Washington Post and CBS’ “60 Minutes” that Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Trump’s nominee to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, had been instrumental in pushing through the drug industrybacked Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.

Sponsors of the legislation, which stripped the Drug Enforcement Agency of the ability to freeze shipments of opioids to doctors and pharmacies believed to be fueling the addiction problem, included U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who got $172,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry in 2016.

Marino quickly withdrew his name from any consideration as the drug czar. Blackburn, who has declared her candidacy for retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s seat in 2018, conceded that the bill might have had “unintended consequences.”

Still, at least for the moment, it appears that Trump’s presidential campaign promise to solve the opioid crisis might finally have been moved up on the president’s priority list. But the president’s commitment must go beyond lip service.

If opioid abuse is a national emergency, why has the administration proposed budget cuts for federal agencies and programs that could be brought to bear on the crisis, including Medicaid, which pays for about one-fourth of all substance-abuse treatment?

How to justify the president’s petulant attempts to allow or force Obamacare to “implode,” which would take insurance coverage away from millions of Americans with substance abuse disorders?

In Congress, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), are working on a bipartisan agreement that could delay Obamacare’s demise by providing critical subsidies to health insurers that Trump has threatened to cut off.

A hearing by Alexander’s Senate Health Committee focused on the opioid epidemic, which, the senators said, is “tearing our communities apart, tearing families apart, and posing an enormous challenge to health providers and law enforcement officials.”

Credit the law enforcement community with approaching the opioid crisis from a new angle: Bringing murder charges against the people suspected of supplying a deadly dose of drugs.

“They need to know if you sell something and somebody dies, you can be held accountable,” Metro Nashville Police Lt. Carlos Lara told the USA TODAY Network-Tennessee.

Meanwhile, three East Tennessee prosecutors are suing three opioid drugmakers, labeling them as drug dealers and accusing them of lying about the addictive properties of opiates and aggressively pushing the drugs as miracle cures for all manner of pain. Shelby County is considering a similar lawsuit.

Much more needs to be done in such areas as the over-prescription of opioids by medical practitioners, insufficient treatment programs for addicts, and alternative methods of controlling pain.

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