By Philip Wegmann for RealClearPolitics
House Republicans are requesting a sit-down meeting with President Biden to discuss the ongoing scourge of fentanyl overdoses after he traveled to Arizona earlier this week but declined to visit the southern border, telling reporters that there were “more important things going on.”
Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, outgoing chairman of the Republican Study Committee, authored the letter obtained by RealClearPolitics. It wasn’t the first, however, that House Republicans have sent.
Banks and seven other House Republicans requested a meeting with Biden in October to discuss fentanyl and also to deliver letters, photos, and obituaries from families who have lost loved ones to the drug. “Our meeting request has been ignored for 48 days,” they now write, and over that period “more than 7,500 Americans have died from fentanyl-related deaths.”
The request is a blunt message that the White House has already received: Republicans do not believe Biden is doing enough. It is also a preview of conservative attitudes as an incoming GOP majority prepares to ratchet up oversight of the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis – House Republicans will put victims of the drug epidemic front-and-center and blame Biden for inaction.
“Almost every person in America today has been impacted by, or has a loved one who has been impacted by, the deadly fentanyl crisis. Hearing directly from mothers that lost children to fentanyl poisoning was one of the most powerful meetings I have had during my time in Congress,” Banks said.
“We are asking President Biden to stop ignoring our request and allow us to share these families’ stories,” he added.
Overdoses reached a catastrophic high during the first year of the pandemic and then kept rising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were nearly 94,000 deaths in 2020. The Biden administration launched a “whole-of-government” response, directing hundreds of millions in new funding toward combating the epidemic and adopting new drug control strategies to treat addiction more as an illness and less as a crime.
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A senior administration official pointed RCP to that ongoing work and dismissed Republican criticism as shortsighted. “This crisis does not begin or end at the border,” they said, “and that is exactly why this administration is trying to tackle untreated addiction and also stop the flow of illicit drugs, like fentanyl, into communities.”
Improvements have been slow but, according to the administration, significant. According to the latest CDC data, overdose deaths increased, though at half the expected rate, to around 107,000 in 2021.
“We’re looking at continuing to make progress because we know there’s still a ways to go,” Health and Human Services Sec. Xavier Becerra said at a press conference last week. “We’re not going to let stigma drive us anymore. We’re going to go where we need to go to help people thrive.”
Biden, along with Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, have repeatedly said that ending the opioid epidemic remains “a top priority.” In October, Gupta noted that “we are losing an American every five minutes” and called on Congress during a Fox News interview to provide increased funding to combat fentanyl trafficking.
“We hosted families at the White House to hear directly from people who have lost loved ones and discuss how we can all work together to save lives,” said Gupta, who was confirmed by the Senate last November and who has traveled to the southern border to observe the situation directly. “I’ve met so many families with similar stories in red states and blue states; this is not a partisan issue.”
A synthetic opioid, fentanyl is often prescribed as a powerful painkiller, but its low cost and ready availability has made the drug an unfortunate accelerant in the opioid epidemic. Mexican cartels synthesize chemicals that come from China to make the drug before sending it across the southern border. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have struggled to stem the flow.
“The economics of fentanyl have just been pushing the other drugs out of the market,” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times. “It’s just so cheap to buy fentanyl and turn around and put it in whatever.”
The administration has directed new funding to programs meant to treat addiction and worked to make naloxone products, which reverse overdoses in an emergency, more available. Biden also directed the Treasury Department in December of last year to begin targeting the finances of anyone connected to the cartels that smuggle the drug into the U.S.
But the fundamental disconnect between the two parties remains how to secure the southern border, with Republicans complaining that Biden has neglected his duty to do so. Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida called it “criminal negligence.”
“By turning a blind eye to what is happening at our southern border and in our communities,” argued Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, “Biden is leaving countless families who have lost a child behind as collateral damage.”
“I urge President Biden to meet with us and hear the stories of the young victims of the fentanyl crisis,” added Rep. August Pfluger of Texas.
The president’s offhand comment about the border last Tuesday touched a nerve with families who lost loved ones to fentanyl. Theresa Juillerat, who met with House Republicans to share how her son died from a fentanyl overdose, said the remark was “an insult.” The bereaved Indiana mother argued that while fentanyl-related deaths are at a record high, the lives of victims “do not seem to be significant enough to matter to President Biden.”
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.
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