Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Instead of tax reform, why doesn’t Trump attack the opioid crisis?

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 17: Recovering drug users, activists and social service providers hold a morning rally calling for "bolder political action" in combating the overdose epidemic outside of the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo on August 17, 2017 in New York City. According to the latest data available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 35,000 people across America died of heroin or opioid overdoses in 2015. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Protesters calling for bolder action in combating the opioid epidemic rally in New York on Aug. 17.

On Wednesday, President Trump traveled to Missouri to launch the White House’s push for comprehensive tax reform. According to the president, there is today a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver real tax reform” and “lower taxes on American business means higher wages for American workers.”

Posing with her father, Ivanka Trump took to Twitter to back up these words with this pithy tweet:

“We must reform our tax code so that all Americans can succeed in our modern economy & achieve the American Dream! #TaxReform”

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For the moment, let’s put aside the fact that insomuch as Trump has talked tax specifics – like lowering the corporate tax rate – his proposals would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans, like Trump and his family.

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Let’s also put aside question of whether the president of the United States should be traveling around the country promoting tax reform at the same moment that the nation’s fourth largest city is experiencing the worst natural (and man-made) disaster in America since Hurricane Katrina

Actually, I take that back: Let’s question this. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey – and while rescue and recovery efforts are still ongoing – why is the president prioritizing tax reform? Shouldn’t Washington be focused on making communities across America — including Houston and its environs — more resilient for the next storm that is surely to come?

Of course, this president and his party continue to reject the science of climate change, so the chances that he and Congress will prioritize preparations for warmer temperatures and rising seas is close to zero.

But how about an issue on which Republicans and Democrats agree — like the opioid epidemic, which is ravaging communities across America.

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Last year, an estimated 60,000 Americans died of a drug overdose. Many of those deaths were from prescription painkillers, fentanyl and heroin. This number is a 19 percent increase from 2015 and, by all estimates, 2017 is going to be even worse. In Massachusetts, the crisis is particularly acute. Nearly 2,000 people in the state are believed to have died as the result of an opioid overdose – five times the number killed in automobile accidents.

For all the talk about tax reform as an engine for the US economy, the economic consequences of opioid addiction are severe. The latest available data from 2013 indicated that the heath care costs, lost productivity and criminal justice expenses amounted to a nearly $80 billion drain on the economy.

That number is likely much higher today. And then there are the unquantifiable human costs — the children orphaned, the lives shattered, and the misery that opioid addiction is creating in communities in practically every corner of America.

Unlike tax reform, there is a broad political consensus that more must be done to deal with the opioid epidemic — and, up to this point, Washington’s response has been underwhelming. In 2016, Congress passed legislation with the largest appropriation ever to deal with the issue — $1 billion. That’s a drop in the bucket to what is needed.

During the GOP’s failed efforts to repeal Obamacare, Republicans proposed spending $45 billion in order to win over Senators in states that have been ravaged by the crisis. According to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, it would cost, on average, $2 million per county in America to set up an opioid crisis center. So $45 billion would mean more than 2,000 centers where people suffering from opioid addition could walk in and receive treatment. Other legislation, to limit opioid prescriptions and go after what Kolodny calls the “pill mills” and legal drug dealers who have helped contribute to the crisis, could do even more good.

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And if Trump — who ran on attacking the opioid crisis — were to make this a priority, he’d be pushing on an open door in Congress. Even if one buys the dubious notion that tax reform is urgently needed, the urgency of dealing with a crisis that kills as many Americans as gun violence and car crashes combined should be patently obvious — and it’s a political slam dunk! With Congress heading back to Washington next month, Republicans and Democrats should make this issue the true priority that they regularly claim that it is. With lives at stake, tax reform can wait.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.