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Trump praised for discussing opioids, criticized for not providing money

President Trump walks past reporters on Wednesday before his announcement on opioids. Bill O'Leary / Washington Post1 / 2
In this file photo, North Dakota first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum discusses substance abuse prevention in April 2017 with students on the Grand Forks Youth Commission. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service 2 / 2

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pledges a major campaign to fight unneeded opioid painkiller use, but it is not clear how his declaring the drug epidemic a "public health emergency" will help the Upper Midwest.

"We will overcome addiction in America," Trump promised Thursday, Oct. 26, in a White House East Room ceremony.

Comments like his are important because they draw attention to the problem, those working on drug abuse issues say, but many add that without federal money the fight will be impeded.

The only new money Trump mentioned would come from a lawsuit he said could be brought against drug makers, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

"This emergency declaration is a good step to help raise awareness about the epidemic of opioid abuse, which has taken far too many lives and impacted far too many families across North Dakota and the country," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said. "What communities need right now is more resources, and it's up to the federal government to help provide that support."

One official who lost a son to opioids said Trump's comments made for a good start.

"Sometimes you have to take wins when you get them," said Minnesota state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar.

Trump's public health emergency declaration gives federal officials authority to waive some regulations that now slow states' response to the epidemic and allows states more flexibility on using federal funds. Federal funding would have been provided if he had declared a national emergency like occurred after recent hurricanes.

Klobuchar said she expects "a major effort to get some funding" as Congress considers next year's budget.

In reacting to Trump's speech, most Upper Midwest members of Congress pointed to their efforts to slow the opioid epidemic and the need for more legislation.

For instance, Klobuchar, a former county attorney, urged Trump to "be out front on treatment funding," passing bills to require better monitoring of painkiller prescriptions and "to crack down on illicit synthetic drugs coming across our borders."

Trump addressed the latter issue. He said his effort to build a wall along the Mexican border would help stop drug importation from the south.

Several officials called for taxing drug companies to fund treatment and prevention efforts, both on state and national levels. Baker and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton are among those who want Minnesota to go that route.

Some from the Upper Midwest were in the East Room when Trump spoke about the opioid issue, including Klobuchar and North Dakota's first lady.

Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, as well as her husband, Gov. Doug Burgum, welcomed the announcement. She has focused on addiction issues as first lady. "This is an important step in treating addiction like the chronic disease it is and opening additional paths to treatment, recovery and prevention," Helgaas Burgum said in a statement. The first lady met with Richard Baum, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said Trump's action will "streamline and jump-start" programs aimed at preventing addiction and ensuring access to treatment.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Trump's action will help expand use of telemedicine, remote audio and video connections to health care providers for mental health and substance abuse disorders. That is a growing need in rural Upper Midwest areas that lack adequate mental health professionals.

Some treatment centers that now do not receive federal reimbursement for mental health issues will get that money under the Trump plan.

Upper Midwest drug overdoses, especially due to opioid painkillers, are on the rise.

The Minnesota Health Department reported that drug overdoses claimed the lives of at least 637 people last year.

Drug overdose deaths tripled in North Dakota between 2013 and 2015, rising from 20 to 61, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said drug abuse is a big contributor to rising crime rates in her state. "No community, no family, is immune to addiction. Particularly with opioids, it can often start with a simple prescription for pain medication to deal with a headache."

U.S. Rep. Al Franken, D-Minn., agreed that the impact is widespread and "is destroying Minnesota communities," but "we badly need additional resources to address the epidemic."

Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said the issue goes deeper than drugs.

"While we must directly address the issue of opioids, we also must address these underlying conditions through broader public health and community-building efforts," Ehlinger said. "That includes working for stronger schools, safer neighborhoods, better access to transportation and a sustainable income for all Minnesotans."

Trump set an optimistic tone. "We can be the generation that eliminates the opioid epidemic. We can do it."

But Klobuchar said that will happen only if partisan politics that long has hampered Washington deal with other major issues does not get in the way. "It is really important to unite on this. ... People have to put their political disagreements aside."

Forum News Service reporter John Hageman contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.