Whitmer: Opioids ‘greatest health crisis of lifetime’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer said Monday that if elected governor she would declare a state of emergency over the opioid epidemic, calling prescription painkiller abuse and addiction “the greatest health crisis of our lifetime.”

In one of her first major policy speeches since launching her gubernatorial campaign in January, the former state Senate minority leader outlined a six-step plan to combat a crisis she said has “ravaged communities and families across the state.”

Declaring a state of emergency in Michigan would allow the state to “marshal all the resources we can to fight back,” Whitmer said, noting governors in six other states have declared opioid emergencies, including Arizona, Florida, Virginia and Massachusetts.

Republican President Donald Trump declared a national public health emergency last month, but Whitmer called for a state solution and said Michigan must be “on the front line.”

Whitmer said she wants to “develop the best opioid treatment centers in the country,” in part by directing funding to hospitals and medical centers in northern Michigan, where the opioid crisis has hit particularly hard.

The 46-year-old East Lansing resident also proposed making it mandatory for physicians to use the Michigan Automated Prescription System, as she advocated for mental health funding, public education initiatives and called on pharmaceutical companies to lower prices for newer, less addictive opiates.

Drug overdose deaths increased 18 percent in Michigan from 2015 to 2016, according to provisional data released in July by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

There were 2,335 drug-related deaths statewide in 2016, compared with 1,981 in 2015 — and most were related to opioids.

Whitmer, the early front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year, outlined her opioid plan during the Care Free Medical Clinic’s Second Annual Healthcare Symposium in Lansing.

Former Detroit Health Director Abdul El-Sayed, Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs are among other Democrats in the race.

El-Sayed has called the opioid crisis “Michigan’s silent epidemic” and called for bold leadership on the issue, which has become a rallying cry by officials across the political spectrum.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the early frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, runs a Opioid Trafficking and Interdiction Unit in his office and recently joined a coalition of 41 state attorneys general in an investigation of manufacturers and distributors.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a likely candidate for governor, heads a new Council on Opioid and Prescription Drug Enforcement. He helped lead a push to overhaul the state’s automated prescription drug tracking system and has said the update should make it “easier” to pass legislation mandating its use.

A life-saving antidote for opioid overdose, Naloxone, became available to the public in April under a statewide standing order issued by Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical executive. It allowed pharmacists to dispense the medication without prescription.

But Whitmer said Tuesday that the state needs to take additional action.

“We’ve got people who have been in office for a long time and the crisis continues to get worse,” she said.

More people die from opioid overdoses each year than from gun crimes or auto crashes, she said, noting there were 1,275 opioid deaths in Michigan in 2015.

“That means between now and the time we all sit down for turkey on Thursday, 14 more Michiganders will die of an opioid overdose,” Whitmer said.