Murkowski-Warren letter slams White House’s response to opioid epidemic

Sen. Lisa Murkowski at the Capital in July, 2017 (Photo by Liz Ruskin).

On Thursday, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski sent a letter with her Democratic colleague Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to the president regarding the nation-wide opioid epidemic.

The four-page document frames the health crisis as a bipartisan issue, and lays blame for a lackluster policy response squarely in one place.

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Murkowski and Warren are critical of President Donald Trump’s response to the opioid crisis, specifically what they believe is a lack of action from the administration after promising to tackle the issue.

The senators point to a statement the president made in August at his Bedminster, NJ golf club.

“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency, it’s a national emergency,” Trump said August 10th in a response to a question from a reporter. “We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”

“But do you need emergency powers to address it?” the reporter followed up.

“We’re going to draw it up and we’re going to make it a national emergency,” Trump replied. “It is a serious problem, the likes of which we have never had.”

The designation of a “national emergency” is significant because it unlocks funding and can potentially waive federal rules that would make access to treatment more widely available.

Just two days earlier, on August 8th, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stopped short of pushing for an official declaration, saying the federal government could bring the necessary resources to bear on the problem without the designation.

In their letter to Trump, Warren and Murkowski wrote, “We are extremely concerned that 63 days after your statement you have yet to take the necessary steps to declare a national emergency on opioids, nor have you made any proposals to significantly increase funding to combat the epidemic.”

Alaska and Massachusetts are two of the six states that have declared health emergencies related to opioids and heroin.

In the months since Governor Bill Walker declared a public health emergency, first-responders, volunteers and law enforcement officials have been able to get thousands of doses of the overdose-reversing medication nalaxone. The move also allowed state officials to pursue federal grants and new treatment programs aimed at curbing addiction, and it spurred the Legislature to pass bills that reduce access to prescription pain medications.

The senators point to guidance issued by the Trump administration’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which recommended the federal government follow steps taken by states like Alaska and Massachusetts.

Both Warren and Murkowski sit on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. They’ve been signatories together on similar bipartisan efforts under the current administration, like a March letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for clarity on federal marijuana enforcement.

A spokesman for Senator Dan Sullivan said he didn’t sign the letter because had not had time to thoroughly review it in advance.