D.C. lawmakers will hold a public hearing to examine failures in the city’s response to surging heroin deaths in African American neighborhoods and to assess future strategies for combating the opioid epidemic.
The Jan. 28 hearing will be held by the D.C. Council’s judiciary and health committees. It comes after The Washington Post reported last month that the District’s public-health agencies have repeatedly faltered in confronting one of the nation’s most severe increases in fatal opioid overdoses over the past several years.
D.C. Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) — chairmen of the judiciary and health committees, respectively — said the hearing would give legislators an opportunity to probe the reasons for the failures that were documented by The Post, as well as to seek information about how the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) plans to more effectively reduce drug fatalities.
“The city is behind the curve in its response, and it’s behind the curve by a couple years,” Allen said. “To me, a major part of this is: Where’s the urgency? What’s a stronger word than urgent? Where’s the immediacy to this? That’s a big part of what we want to focus on with the hearing.”
Gray said he was particularly concerned about whether the city, in light of its past inaction, was prepared to spend the $21 million it expects to receive this year from the federal government to address the opioid epidemic.
“It’s an embarrassment, and it’s disgraceful, that we haven’t done more,” Gray said. “We’ve got to step up our game.”
Wayne Turnage, interim deputy mayor for health and human services, said administration officials “welcome the scrutiny” and would cooperate with the council’s inquiry. He acknowledged problems in the city’s opioid efforts – particularly its management of federal dollars – but said the District had done its best to confront a quickly evolving crisis and has a plan for future action.
Late last month, after The Post published its series, the mayor issued a 22-page plan that called for cutting opioid overdose deaths in half by 2020. However, many key initiatives described in the document echo earlier plans created by D.C. officials. Some are things that the city is already doing or is supposed to have done.
“Too many of our neighbors in Washington, D.C. lose their lives, or family members and friends to a substance use disorder,” Bowser said in a cover letter to the plan. “Our interagency, public health approach has yielded progress in saving lives and reducing fatal overdoses, but we have a lot of work left to do.”
Between 2014 and 2017, the District’s rate of fatal drug overdoses rose by 209.9 percent — an increase higher than that of any state and the ninth highest among all U.S. counties, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. (The agency does not track deaths by city.)
In 2017, the city saw 279 fatal opioid overdoses, according to the D.C. chief medical examiner — a figure higher than the number of homicides that year. The deaths were driven by heroin cut with the lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl and were concentrated among older, African American users in Southeast and Northeast Washington.
African American users are dying of drug overdoses at more than seven times the rate of the District’s white residents, the most recent CDC data show.
Despite the scale of death — representing the city’s worst public-health crisis since the height of the AIDS epidemic — D.C. officials failed to deploy lifesaving strategies widely adopted by other cities and states, and misspent millions of federal grant dollars, The Post found.
An effort to publicly distribute naloxone — an overdose antidote that can prevent deaths — by the D.C. Department of Health was crippled by city officials’ refusals to issue adequate amounts of the medication, leaving front-line treatment providers facing shortages. In 2017, Baltimore distributed more than four times as much naloxone per capita as the District, and Philadelphia distributed more than three times as much.
Overdose prevention and treatment programs that the District was supposed to implement over the past two years using $4 million of federal grant money were also plagued by problems. The city failed to spend a third of its federal dollars during the grant’s first year, necessitating a special request to federal officials to roll over the funds.
The medical provider that received much of the District’s grant money said not a single patient was referred for addiction treatment through city programs. Initiatives that city officials told the federal government they would launch — including an outreach program for overdose patients at the District’s public hospital — never materialized.
Bowser removed Tanya Royster, director of the Department of Behavioral Health, in late November, shortly before The Post published its stories. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the Department of Health, is overseeing both agencies on an interim basis. Allen and Gray said they expect to call her to testify.
The hearing comes as D.C. lawmakers are also pushing on other fronts to intensify the fight against opioid deaths.
This week, eight of the council’s 13 members introduced a bill that would require police officers to carry naloxone, as they do in thousands of other departments across the country.
Bowser and police officials are opposed to such a policy, citing the cost and training requirements and arguing that it is unnecessary because fire and emergency medical services officials already carry the antidote.