State Politics

Cooper says Senate is making opioid crisis a ‘political football,’ announces $31 million federal grant

Governor Cooper announces efforts to fight opioid epidemic

Video: Gov. Roy Cooper announces that North Carolina has been awarded a grant to fund opioid abuse prevention and treatment for people who are addicted. The grant of $31 million over two years came from the federal government’s Cures Program.
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Video: Gov. Roy Cooper announces that North Carolina has been awarded a grant to fund opioid abuse prevention and treatment for people who are addicted. The grant of $31 million over two years came from the federal government’s Cures Program.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that North Carolina has received a $31 million federal grant to help address the opioid epidemic.

Abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers has claimed a growing number of lives in the state. Nearly 1,000 North Carolinians died from an unintentional opioid overdose in 2015, an average of 2.7 per day.

Cooper and other state officials celebrated the grant during a visit to Southlight, a treatment facility in Southeast Raleigh.

While he said the federal money will help thousands more get treatment, he called on legislators to do more to address the problem – and he had sharp words for a 3 a.m. Senate budget amendment that stripped education funding in Democrats’ districts to pay for opioid programs. The governor said the move used the opioid crisis as a “political football.”

“We shouldn’t have to choose between education funding and battling the opioid epidemic,” Cooper said. “We can and we should do both.”

The budget amendment was proposed and quickly passed after Republican senators had grown frustrated with Democrats for prolonging a late-night budget debate. Senate leader Phil Berger has defended the amendment, saying the cuts were needed to address the opioid crisis without raising taxes.

The governor, however, noted that the Senate’s proposed programs to help treat opioid overdose victims are limited to seven communities – all of them in Republican senators’ districts.

“The opioid crisis does not pick Democrats or Republicans as victims,” Cooper said. “Our solutions should not be that way either. Our solutions should fix this problem for every single citizen in North Carolina.”

Berger spokeswoman Shelly Carver pointed out that people from both political parties live in the areas that will benefit from the proposed opioid treatment program.

“We agree that addiction is not a partisan issue, and that’s why it’s unfortunate the governor chose to display his hypocrisy by using a positive grant announcement to attack his political opponents,” Carver said in an email Thursday. “The fact is this amendment targets funds to help many areas of the state hardest hit by the opioid crisis, and there are Democrats and Republicans struggling in each of these areas.”

The federal grant announced Thursday will go primarily toward expanding treatment. Mandy Cohen, secretary of health and human services, estimates that the $31 million will treat 3,000 people over two years and purchase 6,500 naloxone kits, which are used by first responders to treat opioid overdoses. That represents an 18 percent increase in the number of people served by treatment programs.

“New dollars are available, right here at Southlight for folks who hadn’t been able to get access to that treatment before,” Cohen said. “This is not enough. This is a first installment. More is needed from the state; more is needed from the business community.”

The funding comes from the 21st Century Cures Act, which is funding $1 billion in grants to states across the country.

Attorney General Josh Stein pointed out that only one in 10 people facing an opioid addiction receive the needed treatment.

“We would not accept that 90 percent of people with heart disease, diabetes or AIDS do not receive health care, yet that is the situation today in North Carolina for people with substance abuse disorder,” Stein said. “The lack of resources to meet this need is tragic.”

Video: Recovering opioid addict Aaron Gable tells his story of recovery during a press conference at the SouthLight Healthcare facility on Garner Road in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, May 18, 2017. Gable spoke following an announcement by Gov. Roy Co

Stein called on the state Senate to pass the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention, or STOP, Act, which passed the House unanimously last month. It would limit doctors to prescribing no more than a five-day supply of opioids such as Percocet during an initial visit to treat a patient’s pain, such as from a broken bone.

That bill has not yet received a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee.

In addition to announcing the federal grant, Cooper said he has been appointed to the national Opioid Crisis Task Force, which is being chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “I will work with both Republicans and Democrats to fight this problem and get solutions from other states,” he said.

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin also said Thursday that he’ll be working on the issue with other states. He has joined the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative with other judicial officials to look for solutions within the court system.

“Rising opioid addiction is a grave issue that has serious implications for our criminal justice system,” Martin said in a news release. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in other states to develop comprehensive judicial solutions as we assist our states in efforts to prevent and combat addiction.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter