Addiction specialists and advocates in Massachusetts, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, welcomed President Trump’s words Thursday declaring a public health emergency — but decried the lack of money and actions to back them up.
“It’s disgraceful,” said Kurt Isaacson, CEO of Spectrum Health Systems, a nonprofit addiction-treatment provider based in central Massachusetts. “If you’re just talking about something, and you’re not doing anything actionable, then the words are kind of hollow.”
The emergency declaration “falls far short of actions that are needed to immediately address the magnitude and scope of this epidemic,” said Michael Botticelli, executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center.
Botticelli, who was director of national drug control policy in the Obama administration, said steps to increase treatment capacity and better address the crisis “are glaringly absent from this declaration.”
But Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan, who attended the president’s announcement, said the declaration is “freeing up existing federal resources and empowering Cabinet members to redeploy resources.” More importantly, said Ryan, who is co-chair of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative , a presidential declaration “brings the necessary sense of urgency in dealing with this crisis.”
Dr. Peter D. Friedmann, an addiction clinician and researcher at BayState Health in Springfield agreed that the declaration carried symbolic importance. But he added, “We didn’t need a symbolic gesture to know this is a public health emergency. What we need is funding to deliver necessary harm reduction and medical treatment services to address the problem.”
With more than 2,000 opioid-related deaths tallied last year, Massachusetts has one of the most severe addiction problems in the nation. Governor Charlie Baker has publicly made addressing the opioid crisis a cornerstone of his administration, increasing funding for opioid treatment and sponsoring legislation to limit opioid prescriptions.
Baker, a Republican, also serves on Trump’s bipartisan opioid commission. On Thursday his spokeswoman, Lizzy Guyton, said the governor “believes that declaring this deadly epidemic a national public health emergency is a strong step in the right direction and is thankful for the president’s focus on the issue.”
But the Massachusetts Democratic Party called on Baker to resign from Trump’s opioid commission, saying it “continues to dole out empty promises.’’
Senator Edward J. Markey also used strong words to denounce the president’s declaration: “America is hemorrhaging lives by the day because of the opioid epidemic, but President Trump offered the country a Band-Aid when we need a tourniquet,” Markey said in a statement. “The Trump administration formula for the opioid crisis is clear: empty words, broken promises and no real action.”
Sarah Porter, vice president and chief operating officer of Victory Programs, a Boston addiction treatment agency, said, “It’s important for leaders to name a public health problem, to say it out loud.”
But as she listened to Trump’s talk, she waited in vain for him to indicate support for Medicaid, the health program for the poor that pays for the care of 96 percent of her clients — and that the president’s budget would slash.
“I look outside my window and there are a ton of people who appear to be in need of additional services,” Porter said.
Trump’s declaration of a public health emergency lasts 90 days and can be renewed.
Daniel S. Mumbauer, CEO of High Point Treatment Center, which runs 16 treatment facilities in Massachusetts, said, “You can’t come in and do a 90-day intervention on a problem that’s been around for over a decade and expect to see the results you need.”
Sustained funding is needed to hire the clinicians and build the infrastructure to address addiction, Mumbauer said.
“We don’t have enough beds. We don’t have enough outpatient clinics. And we don’t have enough folks working in the field,” he said.