NEO man who lost son to addiction reacts to Trump declaring opioid crisis 'public health emergency'

Posted at 6:03 PM, Oct 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-26 19:22:01-04

On the heels of a bombshell report about the role of Congress and big drug companies helping fuel the opioid epidemic, President Trump is now delivering on his promise to make fighting the crisis one of his top priorities.

He called it the "worst drug crisis in American history" while officially declaring it a national public health emergency Thursday, pledging the nation's full resolve in overcoming it.

"Addressing it will require all of our effort, and it will require us to confront the crisis in all of its very real complexity," President Trump said. "As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue. It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge of drug addiction. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it."

The declaration frees up federal money and eases regulations to address drug use. It also gives states more flexibility in how those federal funds are used, and expands access to telemedicine services, according to officials with the administration.

"We were, as a family, we were blindsided by this and devastated," said Greg McNeil of Hudson, who lost his son, Sam, to a heroin overdose two years ago.

"Sam had every reason to live long-term," McNeil explained. "He had so, so many things going for him and he was such a fun and talented guy. He was a great athlete."

It is a crisis that claims more than 140 lives every day in the United States, with Northeast Ohio at the epicenter.

"It's really sad that it's gotten this far prior to, at the highest levels, ringing alarm bells," McNeil said.

The Obama administration has been criticized for not acknowledging the crisis sooner. In fact, President Obama's health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, says they didn't do enough and that recognizing the issue earlier could have prevented many overdose deaths.

After taking office, President Trump appointed a commission to study the epidemic, which called on him to declare a national emergency. The president referred to it as a "national emergency" in August but stopped short of officially declaring it as such Thursday. That would have made more emergency funding available from the federal Disaster Relief Fund, which is the case following natural disasters like hurricanes.

"It doesn't include additional funding than what is already in the budget but it does put the emphasis on this so that grant monies can move toward the crisis a little faster than what they normally would," McNeil noted.

McNeil has devoted his life to education and advocacy, founding Cover2 Resources in his son's honor. He says it is about time for the government to finally step up but he has concerns.

"It's a 90-day order," he said. "This isn't a 90-day problem. This is a long-term problem and hopefully the thought behind that is well ok, let's get started, see how it goes and if we need to shift, in short order, to a national emergency, The Stafford Act, that's what we do.”

The declaration can be repeatedly renewed following the 90 days.

Trump administration officials said Thursday that declaring a national emergency wouldn’t be appropriate for a long-term crisis. They also said it would not offer any additional authorities to the government.

At the end of the day, McNeil says the real difference makers are people in the community. He says we all have to be a part of the solution but this is a step in the right direction.

"If we're properly funded and properly led, I believe that can make a tremendous difference. We need communication back and forth. We need to identify and understand the programs that are working and working well across the country."

President Trump still has to name the key players who will carry out the declaration, including a drug czar and secretary of Health and Human Services. Representative Tom Marino withdrew his nomination for drug czar after reports legislation he sponsored hurt the DEA and fueled the opioid crisis. Tom Price stepped down as health secretary last month, after it came to light he was flying on private jets on the taxpayer's dime.

The presidential memorandum Trump signed Thursday orders acting secretary of health and human services, Eric Hargan, to declare a nationwide public health emergency, while directing all federal agencies to use any emergency authorities at their disposal to reduce the number of deaths due to opioid overdose.

The last time a comparable national public health emergency was declared happened in response to the H1N1 influenza virus in 2009.