Gehrke: Mike Lee’s opioid summit may save lives, but the senator has missed opportunities to do more to solve the crisis

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Thousands of students from across the state were bused to downtown Salt Lake City on Friday to hear a unified message — opioids kill.

The event, Sen. Mike Lee’s annual Utah Solutions Summit, brought together top law enforcement officials, addiction survivors and celebrities to help steer them away from an epidemic that killed 360 Utahns last year.

Good for the senator for doing it. Undoubtedly those in attendance came away with a new appreciation for the dangers of the drug and hopefully lives will be saved by the message they heard.

Education and prevention are indeed important — but it’s only a small piece of a much larger, comprehensive battle against opioid addiction.

That includes treatment, emergency services, law enforcement intervention aimed at getting opioid users help and shutting down suppliers. And it takes money. Lots of it.

Carbon County is ground zero for the opioid epidemic in Utah and is among the hardest hit regions in the nation. Last month, Price received $150,000 for a detox and sober living facility and $46,000 to help get patients access to treatment services. The county got $80,000 to buy ambulance equipment to respond to the all-too-common drug overdoses. Sevier County got $110,000 for similar equipment.

The money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development, which has been investing millions of dollars fighting opioid abuse.

In April, USDA Assistant Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett and Jim Carroll, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control, visited Utah to hear on-the-ground accounts of the crisis facing rural residents.

“In our community, we’re dying — and not only are we dying, but we’re killing ourselves,” said Debbie Marvidikis of the Southeast Utah Health Department.

Yet less than a month ago, Lee was the one and only senator to vote against the Opioid Crisis Response Act. The legislation seeks to make addiction treatment more accessible, to crack down on synthetic opioids crossing the border and to boost pain treatment research.

Lee voted against it, he said, because it included “dozens of new grant programs with little accountability for how the dollars will be spent and minimal measurement or analysis on their effectiveness.”

The unaccountable grant programs Lee is so opposed to are the very same type of grants that are being used to deploy new tools and are benefitting Lee’s constituents.

“Good intentions are not enough,” he said. “In the face of a crisis such as this, we cannot afford to waste precious funds on programs which likely won’t work.”

In fact, the bill only dedicated about $1.7 billion per year to the opioid programs, far less than experts say is needed.

And it’s not the first time the senator has opposed legislation targeting the opioid crisis. In 2016, he was one of two senators to vote against a bill to expand the tools available to doctors and law enforcement to help addicts, to increase access to the life-saving drug Naloxone, and to improve treatment for those behind bars.

In Lee’s world, this is something states should be doing, not the federal government. And it’s hard to argue with that, since the Founding Fathers did not mention the word “opioid” one time in the entire text of the U.S. Constitution.

But we don’t live in Mike Lee’s world. In the real world, his job as senator is to work to solve problems, not make grandiose statements about principles when people are dying. Saying a program won’t work or will waste money before it is launched is a cop out.

By the way, those efforts appear to be working, as the number of opioid-related deaths fell from 449 in 2016 to 360 last year, making it the third year in a row the number of deaths have decreased.

Of course local governments have a role to play. The Utah Legislature, the state and county health departments and local law enforcement are doing their part. And the federal government has a role in helping.

“We are wearing our tires out traveling around the state,” Brian Besser, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent in charge for Utah, said after Lee’s summit. “We spend most of our time finding those who are hardest hit, listening, and learning how we can help."

Yes, one of the ways Lee can help is hosting anti-opioid rallies for students. But that is not enough. This is one of the largest national health epidemics of our generation and it requires a coordinated response involving every level of government. If Lee is serious about solving this problem, he should join the team and not be a lone voice of dissent when Congress, for once, tries to do the right thing.