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Life expectancy fell for second consecutive year in 2016 due to opioid crisis

"The Trump Administration has failed the country completely in its response to the opioid epidemic."

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, left, speaks on the opioid crisis in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, left, speaks on the opioid crisis in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The life expectancy declined in 2016 for a second consecutive year, and this was largely driven by the country’s drug crisis.

Drug overdoses killed more U.S. residents in 2016 than any other year, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on U.S. mortality. More than 63,600 people died of drug overdoses last year; roughly two-thirds, or 42,200 deaths, were associated with opioids. And experts say CDC is likely undercounting opioid-related deaths. For comparison, drug overdoses killed 52,400 people in 2015.

And yet, the federal response to this epidemic has been dismal.

“The Trump Administration has failed the country completely in its response to the opioid epidemic,” said Stanford University addiction specialist Keith Humphreys in an email to ThinkProgress. “To turn this epidemic around would take dramatic federal policy action, but there has been none. The Trump Administration has convened advisory groups and made grand pronouncements, but has not increased funding by a penny.”

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President Donald Trump declared the crisis a public health emergency in October, which only dedicated $57,000 or two cents to each person struggling with addiction. During his announcement, he said he would review the White House opioid commission report and take immediate action to implement its recommendations. It has been 51 days since that report was published, and action still pales in comparison to the crisis.

While the Food and Drug Administration has made valiant efforts to address the epidemic since October — most notably when it proposed to expand access to long-term treatment — the federal government more broadly is undermining its efforts to “win” the fight against addiction. The federal government is set to approve Medicaid waivers that allow states to make work requirements and drug tests conditional to accessing insurance. The Republican tax bill, which is now headed to the president’s desk, also repealed a key component of the Affordable Care Act, and now an estimated 4 million people with mental or addictive disorders could lose insurance. And critical positions — like the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and White House drug czar — are still vacant. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway — who has no real policy experience in this area– is leading the charge.

The president has not asked Congress to appropriate new funding, and instead donated $100,000 of his own salary; public health experts say the crisis requires $183 billion over the next decade. Democratic House leadership asked to dedicate money to the crisis in the temporary spending measure, but it’s unlikely. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have been trying to finance the Children’s Health Insurance Program by siphoning money from the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which accounts for 12 percent of CDC funding and helps states address emergencies.

“We have received no additional funding and no sign of additional funding coming our way,” Baltimore City Health Department Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen told ThinkProgress on Thursday. “We continue to struggle with the most basic of lifesaving measures.” Baltimore officials are still rationing the overdose-reversal antidote naloxone, commonly known as its brand name NARCAN. 

This is especially concerning because fentanyl-related overdose deaths soared in 2017 while heroin and prescription opioid-related deaths were stagnant. This change is exacerbating a dire situation. The National Institute of Drug Abuse deputy director told the PBS NewsHour “the main concern is that the relative amount of [fentanyl] opioid in the body may be so extreme that it may take extra doses of naloxone” to treat it.

This post has been updated to include further reporting about the Prevention and Public Health Fund.