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Opioid death toll rises in Erie County as Schumer pushes for boost in aid

WASHINGTON — Opioid deaths increased slightly in Erie County last year, part of a continuing nationwide trend that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer hopes to stem by insisting on more federal funding to combat the epidemic in a spending bill that must be finalized by the end of next week.

An estimated 316 people died of opioid overdoses in Erie County last year, the county Department of Health said Wednesday. That includes 193 confirmed cases and 123 pending cases, of which a small number may be due to something other than an opioid overdose once tests are completed.

The county reported 301 opioid deaths a year earlier, meaning deaths increased nearly 5 percent in 2017. That contrasts to a 19.5 percent increase in 2016 and a doubling of the opioid death rate the year before that.

In light of last year's smaller but continuing increase, Schumer said it's imperative that the Trump administration agree to boost federal funding by billions of dollars a year.

President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency last October, but Schumer said now's the time for some dollars-and-cents follow-up.

"The president's own commission said we need more money," Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a conference call with reporters. "We haven't had the president come out and say he's for this money. We hope he will. And we certainly hope, when we push for it in the budget, he doesn't argue back."

Asked for a response to Schumer's comments, deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley was noncommittal.

“President Trump has prioritized this issue by declaring the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency and directing the entire Administration to focus combating this ‘crisis next door’ that affects so many American families across the country," Gidley said. "We will continue discussions with Congress on the appropriate level of funding needed to address this crisis.”

The argument about federal funding comes amid concern from some quarters that the Trump administration has not followed through on its declaration of a national health emergency.

"I haven't seen anything or read anything about anything from the White House," said Avi Israel of Buffalo, who founded a group called Save the Michaels of the World to combat the opioid epidemic.

"I'm disappointed because there is a national crisis, a pandemic," said Israel, whose son, Michael, committed suicide while combating an addiction to prescription painkillers.

The Trump administration insists, though, that it has taken several actions aimed at stemming the opioid epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a Prescription Awareness Campaign warning people about the dangers of abusing prescription painkillers, and the Food and Drug Administration is imposing new requirements on pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drugs in order to cut back on inappropriate prescriptions.

Meantime, the State Department struck a deal with the UN to make it harder to import the chemicals used in making fentanyl, a powerful artificial opioid that was responsible for 60 percent of Erie County's opioid-related deaths in 2017.

"We are fighting the opioid epidemic, and we are proudly supporting the men and women of law enforcement, including our wonderful ICE officers and Border Patrol Agents," President Trump said in a speech in Nashville earlier this week.

Schumer insisted, though, that more money is needed. Congress must pass a new spending bill by Jan. 19 in order to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, and he said Democrats are insisting that it include a big increase in funding to combat opioid abuse.

"Talking is great, focusing attention is good, but without real dollars for increased treatment and increased interdiction, without the kind of mass spectrometers that you can put at the airports and post offices to detect fentanyl, you're not going to get success," Schumer said.

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Erie County could certainly use additional federal funding, said Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County's health commissioner. She noted that local drug treatment facilities all have huge waiting lists.

"There's a great need," Burstein said. "We're doing a lot with a little."

She said much has changed locally since County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis two years ago. Some 200 local health providers have been trained to prescribe Buprenorphine, which is used to treat opioid addiction. New methadone clinics will open later this year in Amherst and Orchard Park, and health providers in the county — who usually compete — are working together to combat the crisis.

Israel credited the county's efforts as one of the reasons opioid deaths did not continue to increase at the astronomical rate of earlier years, or as much as in some other counties nationwide. But the county's latest report on the crisis shows that it remains one that touches every part and every demographic group of the county.

Some 45 percent of the people who died of opioid overdoses in the county last year lived in the city of Buffalo, while 44 percent lived in the suburbs. Eight percent came from rural communities, and 3 percent were homeless or of no known address.

Eighty-three percent of the county's opioid deaths were white, while 10 percent were black. Most victims were young males: 77 percent were male, and 58 percent were between the ages of 20 and 39.

Israel said he was glad that the number of opioid deaths increased only slightly in the county last year, but he's by no means satisfied with the progress in the fight against the epidemic.

"I just talked to a father yesterday who lost his 20-year-old son," Israel said. "I went to six funerals in one month. So I don't think I can be encouraged. I can't be encouraged so long as people are dying."

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