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Opioid Users Are Building a Movement for Public Health Solutions to the Epidemic

The opioid drug epidemic is the largest public health crisis facing our country right now, taking the lives of 64,000 people in the U.S. last year. Each day, 90 Americans overdose on painkillers like Oxycontin and Percocet, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

Although President Trump declared the opioid drug epidemic a public health emergency last month, the government needs to invest tens of billions of dollars to address a national crisis of this scale. Perhaps predictably, Trump’s toothless declaration was not accompanied by any additional funds.

Trump’s plans to gut defund Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act stand at odds with a serious attempt to fight the epidemic, which has devastated states in the Northeast and Midwest. As the largest provider of opioid addiction treatment and overdose prevention, Medicaid plays a critical role that has grown even larger since passage of the ACA. In the 31 states that expanded Medicaid coverage, 1.2 million people with opioid addiction gained access to health care.

In addition to not allocating any new funding to the public health emergency and attempting to gut affordable healthcare, Trump has appointed cronies like Chris Christie to head his opioid commission and Newt Gingrich as a paid advocate. When he first took office, Trump tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with solving the opioid crisis as part of an absurdly broad portfolio. In recent months, however, the scope of Kushner's responsibilities appear to have narrowed.

With these antics, Trump risks minimizing the grave national impact of the epidemic while aggrandizing the role of law enforcement in fighting the problem. Over the summer, he told reporters, “Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society. I’m confident that by working with our health care and law enforcement efforts we will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win.”

It is entirely reasonable to fear that Trump, instead of relying on medical providers and public health experts to offer evidence-based solutions, will listen to partisan advisers offering strongman solutions like increased policing, a ramped-up war against drug cartels, or so-called mandatory treatment, which in some cases is unpaid hard labor.

Already, the U.S. spends $100 billion a year on policing and another $80 billion on incarceration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled his intention to restart the war on drugs and double down on incarceration.

Even deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak, the opioid crisis costs the U.S. nearly $80 billion a year, which includes costs from health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement. The opioid emergency needs real solutions and the funding for them, not half-measures and showboating.

This is why opioid users and their allies have launched the Opioid Network, a diverse, multiracial coalition of health care providers, drug users, community organizing groups and families from around the country. Many members are first-time activists, like Don LoGuidice from Ohio who lost a son to an overdose, or longtime drug user Brian Jablonski from Indiana.

We are taking our message to Washington and calling on Congress to release $45 billion in funding for opioid treatment, to protect Medicaid and pass the Alexander-Murray bill to stabilize the health care system so that addiction treatment is safe, affordable and accessible.

Convened and supported by the Center for Popular Democracy, the coalition includes affiliates in Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Vermont, along with Doctors Allied for Indian Health and VOCAL-NY, which emerged from the AIDS crisis and fought for funding for HIV and AIDS.

Over the summer, many of us put our bodies on the line to defend the Affordable Care Act. Now we plan to use the same tactics to pressure Congress to fund real solutions to the opioid crisis. We will flood the streets, hold town halls and make our voices heard.

Federal funding is crucial for bringing safe injection facilities, currently underground, above ground and staffing them with trained medical professionals, decriminalizing syringes and expanding syringe exchange programs, and making overdose antidotes like naloxone widely available without a doctor’s prescription.

Some observers have asked where the opioid epidemic’s ACT UP is. Formed in the late 1980s in response to government inaction on AIDS, ACT UP staged direct actions calling for funding for treatment and research and proactive policies and legislation to address the epidemic that killed 43,000 at its peak in 1995. One successful protest shut down the Federal Drug Administration for a day.

Setting the gold standard for what a direct action campaign can achieve, ACT UP won an entire new stream of funding for people with HIV/AIDS totaling over $3 billion, eventually turning AIDS into a manageable chronic condition, instead of a fatal one.

This is what we aim to do with the Opioid Network. We will turn up the heat on Congress and the Trump administration to ensure there is a steady stream of funding to address this crisis and that medical experts and drug users have a direct voice in the solution.

The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis. To help opioid users, Congress must provide the necessary funding for safe and accessible treatment, and invest in knowledgeable, trained medical experts rather than the incompetent advice of Trump’s Beltway buddies and a revved-up criminal justice system. Anything less would be ineffective and a waste of time and resources.

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