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Editorial: Funding must follow declaration of opioid emergency

President Trump took an important step the other day in calling the nation’s opioid epidemic the “worst drug crisis in American history” and declaring it a public health emergency.

The president’s declaration fell short of the sweeping national state of emergency many had expected. That would have given states access to funding from the federal Disaster Relief Fund, just like after a hurricane or tornado. The omission unleashed a torrent of criticism.

The declaration allows the government to fight opioids using “every appropriate emergency authority,” but the president did not ask for more funding for the fight. Anyone who has ever watched as ineffective government programs get funded and even overfunded understands the notion that throwing money at the problem does not always solve it. But the addiction crisis will continue its rampage unless significant federal resources are devoted to it.

The need is great, with more than 64,000 Americans dying of overdoses in 2016, including more than 250 in Erie County. So many families have lost loved ones, and they deserve some answers as to why more isn’t being done.

The president’s reaction to the toll has been measured and, to some, even slow. He announced in August that he would declare a national emergency, and here it is October.

Trump seems to understand addiction. In making the announcement, he invoked his own difficult family history and talked about his brother, Fred, who died of complications related to alcoholism. He gave credit to his brother for warning of the effects of drinking and offered that a “concerted” national advertising campaign could be effective in keeping people from becoming addicted to opioids and other drugs.

It will take much more than advertising to make a dent in this continuing disaster. Localities and states have already made significant investments, but the federal government needs to take the lead. Only a long and concerted effort on many fronts will make significant headway in the fight against opioid addiction.

What is needed is a strategic approach that uses data to direct resources to successful programs. Call it a domestic Marshall Plan – the American effort to rebuild Europe after World War II. What the president can’t do is stand aside after declaring the public health emergency. He needs to find the funds and leadership to combat this growing menace. The federal government has the tools to do a lot of good, and must get moving. Lives depend on it.

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