WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan and Gov. Bill Walker joined President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday for the roll-out of the Trump administration's response to the nation's growing opioid epidemic.
Walker, an independent, and Sullivan, a Republican, were invited among a relatively small group of lawmakers and governors, along with nearly the president's entire cabinet, first responders and Americans whose lives have been touched by opioid and heroin addiction.
Trump said that in 2016, an average of 175 people died from overdoses every day. He ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency and vowed to take a range of administrative actions to tackle the issue.
Additional federal funding was not among those promises, but Sullivan said he thinks Congress will take the lead on that. "I think we need more federal support — a lot more," Sullivan said. "And I think the appetite … is there" in Congress, he said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski praised the president's declaration in a statement, though she was not among the lawmakers invited to the White House for the event. "Today's declaration and the emphasis it brings is another important step which I hope will encourage more collaboration and coordination in our efforts. I remain dedicated to working alongside Alaskans in this fight against opioid addiction and substance abuse and will keep fighting for the resources we need," Murkowski said.
Sullivan was pleased with the actions planned by the president: regulatory changes to help expand treatment, efforts to intercept heroin and dangerous opioids from entering the country, and a federal campaign to try to prevent young people from starting to abuse opioids.
Walker and Sullivan applauded a plan announced by the president to halt a Medicaid regulation that limits the ability of many drug rehabilitation facilities to expand, which they said is a significant problem in Alaska. The rule prohibits Medicaid financing to care for patients dealing with mental health and drug abuse issues in facilities with more than 16 beds.
"That really impacts us," Sullivan said, calling the rule an "impediment to the ability to establish and expand treatment centers."
The president also pledged to focus on illegal opioids shipped from China, via the post office, and heroin that crosses the border from Mexico.
"As you know in Alaska it's really hitting like it is in the rest of the country, everybody and anybody — ethnic group, socio-economic class, region — it really is just an epidemic that's wiping through communities and states," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he liked that the event had a "notion of a national will. Almost his entire cabinet was there, several governors including our gov were there, first responders and perhaps most importantly families who have lost loved ones. And it was very, very moving."
Walker said the focused effort "was reminiscent of when I issued a declaration of disaster on February 14th of this year" for the state of Alaska.
"I think that it will open up some dialogue and discussion that we haven't perhaps had before and again there's some federal regulations that we as a state can't set aside obviously, but he can," Walker said.
Sullivan also praised part of the president's plan that he said was greeted with skepticism by some: an emphasis on a major advertising campaign to keep kids off drugs.
"Some of the reporters are already saying it sounds like Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' (campaign)," Sullivan said. "I couldn't disagree more."
Opioid abuse comes with a life-or-death risk, and many kids aren't aware, Sullivan said. He noted that he and the head of the FBI in Alaska last year sent letters to high schools across the state urging them to show students a documentary on the dangers of opioid abuse, "Chasing the Dragon."
"The stakes on this are so high," Sullivan said.