Amid the familiar barrage of terrible news out of the Trump administration last week was this chestnut: Kellyanne Conway is going to lead the White House’s response to the opioid crisis.
Because what this fight was missing was a “Saturday Night Live” meme whose chief talent is spinning elaborate, reality-bending lies on national television.
But this isn’t a joke. The bodies mount, three per day now in Philadelphia. And a pollster-crony who coined the term alternative facts is the first point person for a public health crisis of unmatched proportions, with a higher death rate than the AIDS crisis at its height.
Do we need any more proof that saving lives is simply not a priority for this president? No, of course, we don’t.
Ultimately, though, like almost everything with this administration, we’re paying attention to a dumpster fire when a three-alarm blaze is raging around the corner. Because the daily palace drama of the president appointing someone wholly incompetent to a vital post — dangerous on its own — masks even graver dangers.
No one thought for a moment — I didn’t — that the Trump administration was going to wave a magic wand and solve the opioid crisis. To be sure, the federal government can do a lot through freeing up money and resources, leading the national conversation on solutions, helping states find models for treatments and prevention that work. And at times the administration has, at least, talked some of the talk.
But, not only is nobody walking the walk; they’re running in the opposite direction.
There’s Jeff Sessions, who even as he announced new funding to combat the crisis Wednesday, his department has been engaged in a protracted, expensive court battle in an attempt to pull police funding from Philadelphia. Funds that the city was planning to use for Narcan, the very thing that stands between a devastating death toll and an unimaginable one. Attaboy, Jeff.
And there’s the way Conway already talks about the opioid crisis, in blithe, outdated terms. As if War on Drugs policies didn’t already prove to be disastrous. As if solving this crisis is a matter of will — on the part of people in addiction, not our leaders.
And then there’s the gravest danger of all — the tax bill. You know, the one that’s really kind of a health-care bill? The one that threatens to dismantle Obamacare — and in doing so will push millions off insurance rolls, robbing many in addiction of the pathways to treatment? The one that will likely trigger more cuts to social service programs and funding for treatment? Yep, that one. And when those cuts come through, you can bet Conway will be on FOX talking about the importance of willpower.
“What Trump and Congress is doing is a recipe for increased drug use, increased mortality, increased desperation,” said Scott Burris, a law professor at Temple University and the director of the school’s Center for Public Health Law Research.
Maybe I’m being pessimistic. Maybe Conway will wake up tomorrow blessed at last with a virtue that has previously escaped her: honesty. Maybe she’ll start talking about harm reduction and housing, needle exchanges and safe injection sites. The proven tools that can ease this crisis. Even then, it will mean nothing unless she marches down to Congress and tries to kill that bill.
Because, Burris says, plain and simple, the bill will kill people.
“The real colors come out with the tax cut,” he said.
And they’re bleak.
The city is bracing. They say the bill would trigger automatic cuts to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that could slash city homeless programs. (Philly relies on $30 million a year from HUD to house people, said Lauren Hitt, a city spokeswoman: “We don’t have a way to replace that money.”) And that reduced Medicaid coverage would affect the city’s ability to fund its permanent supportive housing services for people in addiction — a program with a 90 percent success rate.
It’s insane when you see the daily miseries in Kensington that we’re even having this conversation.
There are few vacancies in Kensington anymore. In recent weeks, the heroin camp under the Lehigh Street bridge has swelled from a sad sprinkling of sleepers to a full-blown city, with furniture and mattresses stacked double, and young people in addiction talking frankly about how they don’t want to be there. They don’t want to die. But they want to be around one another.
When the tunnel is cleaned out once a week, some of the people there go off to die in alleyways or behind fast-food dumpsters. The survivors are back by nightfall.
Meanwhile, the staff at the city’s sole needle exchange revives people by the bunches, with countless more alive from the Narcan packs they hand out, including the one that I used a few weeks ago on a young woman turning purple under Lehigh.
For their part, city officials got back Wednesday from Seattle on an ongoing, and increasingly serious, effort to research safe injection sites. They hope to decide by year’s end, they say.
I can be critical of the city for its response to the opioid crisis.
I like to think that at least some of the time I’m right.
But at least my city’s not actively trying to jeopardize the future of addiction treatment in this country.
Spin that, Kellyanne.