On November 29, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a series of next steps in the federal government’s effort to address the nation’s opioid epidemic, including the opening of a new Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) field division and the distribution of federal grant money. These actions will partially target parts of the country hit hardest by the opioid epidemic, which in 2015 accounted for 33,000 out of 52,000 drug overdose deaths. According to a statement issued by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) – the agency that oversees the DEA – the new office, which will be based in Louisville, Ky., is expected to facilitate drug control efforts within the Appalachian mountain region and to coordinate drug trafficking investigations between the 22 DEA field offices across the country and U.S. Attorneys. Attorney General Sessions also directed the nation’s 94 U.S. Attorneys to designate an Opioid Coordinator to identify cases for federal prosecution and combat the illegal manufacturing and distribution of heroin and prescription opioids.
In addition, the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office will award $12 million in funding to law enforcement agencies in states with high per capita rates of primary care treatment admissions for heroin and opioids. Grant money will be used to support investigations of illegal heroin and opioid distribution.
The attorney general’s announcement comes just over a month after President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency under the Public Health Service Act (P.L. 115-71). The president’s declaration expands the availability of medically-assisted treatment via telemedicine and allows state and federal agencies greater flexibility in hiring substance abuse specialists; however, the administration stopped short of declaring a broader national state of emergency under the Stafford Act (P.L. 93-288) or committing new federal funds to the epidemic.
It remains unclear whether congressional lawmakers will take up the issue of opioid funding as they negotiate a year-end spending package. Committees of jurisdiction in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives have held multiple bipartisan hearings to assess the full extent of the crisis, but have yet to authorize any additional new funding.
Congress previously allocated funds to address substance abuse in last year’s 21st Century Cures Act (P.L. 114-255), which authorized $1 billion in funding over two years to combat opioid addiction and overdose deaths. So far, $500 million has been appropriated for FY 2017, and the balance is expected to be attached to FY 2018 funding for the federal government. Some lawmakers have floated proposals to extend similar levels of funding into FY 2019, or to tweak the funding distribution formula to reach states with particularly high opioid overdose rates.
NACo will continue to engage with Congressional lawmakers and the Administration to ensure counties have the resources they require to manage the opioid epidemic in their jurisdictions.