Another Voice: Congress leaves opioid crisis on the doorstep of local governments

Posted on: April 6th, 2016

Devolution is when the federal government relinquishes responsibility, intentionally or unintentionally, for something it was previously responsible for to local governments. An example of this can be seen in the way the heroin and opioid epidemic is being addressed in Erie County.

Gridlock in Congress prevents meaningful federal action, despite the efforts of our elected leaders. They include Sen. Charles Schumer’s role in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which would provide communities additional funding for prevention efforts, and Rep. Brian Higgins’ introduction of the Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, which would allow physicians to dispense maintenance medications to more patients.

At the state level, the institution of the I-STOP prescription monitoring registry allowed health care providers to view controlled substance prescription histories for their patients. This system has proven effective in reducing the number of prescription drugs obtained for misuse by legal means.

Sweeping policy actions can have unintended consequences; I-STOP is thought to have led those engaged in prescription drug misuse to migrate to heroin use.

In moving the opioid issue forward, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz created the Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Task Force. Created by executive action, the task force is unfunded, given the budgetary responsibility of the Legislature. Much of the work required for addressing the opioid epidemic requires the deployment of personnel resources from the Department of Health, law enforcement agencies and other already-overburdened components of local government.

The Legislature has the power to govern on this issue in the absence of action from federal and state authorities by supporting two community-based solutions to the opioid epidemic.

The first is through supporting the deployment of additional Narcan trainings. Anyone can administer the easy-to-use nasal spray, and the earlier it is administered, the more likely the person suffering the overdose will survive. The Department of Health has already trained thousands of people, and saved hundreds of lives through its comprehensive rollout. The second is through the provision of information to those dealing with a critical situation around addiction and substance use by creation of a 24/7 hotline to link people to resources.

Governance in metropolitan areas is changing, and such change allows the Legislature the unprecedented chance to make decisions that will shape our community for generations. In supporting community-based solutions to our toughest problems, the Legislature can save lives and support a healthier future for its constituents.

Nathan Attard is a research analyst at SUNY Buffalo State’s Center for Health and Social Research.