Health Care

Bipartisan group calls on Hochul to declare opioid epidemic a public health emergency

More than 50 state lawmakers signed on to a letter sent to the governor urging her to make the declaration.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announces New York’s first payment of opioid settlement agreements on Oct. 23, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announces New York’s first payment of opioid settlement agreements on Oct. 23, 2023. Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers are calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to declare a public health emergency around the opioid epidemic in the state. Although the governor has spoken frequently about her commitment to addressing skyrocketing overdose deaths, she has yet to declare a disaster emergency that would open up new avenues to combat the crisis.

A total of 56 state lawmakers from across New York signed onto the letter sent to Hochul, shared with City & State, spearheaded by state Sen. Nathalia Fernandez and Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas. That includes nine Republicans as well as the nearly four dozen Democrats. “In honor of the tens of thousands of lives lost in the past decade and to prevent more loss of life in our state, we strongly recommend that you, Governor Hochul, declare an Overdose State Disaster Emergency immediately,” the letter reads.

The letter said that in addition to bringing “the attention it needs” from public health organizations, state officials and the public, declaring an opioid emergency would make it easier for the governor to take steps to address surging overdoses. A disaster emergency declaration allows the executive to suspend and circumvent certain laws in order to tackle the problem more swiftly. The letter specifically mentions waiving copays for substance use treatment, increasing Medicaid rates for treatment providers and “creating emergency regulations permitting community-based organizations to enhance overdose prevention methods and services.”

For the past several years, New York has recorded new record high overdose deaths. In 2022, about 6,670 people died from overdoses. The same year, New York City recorded the highest number of overdose deaths since reporting began in 2000 with over 3,000. New York Focus reported in December that the state was predicted to report 6,900 overdose deaths between July 2022 and July 2023.  “Every life lost to the opioid epidemic is a tragedy we cannot afford to ignore,” Fernandez said in a statement. “By declaring an Overdose State Disaster Emergency, we can prioritize public health and save lives. It's time for action.”

Former President Donald Trump declared a federal public health emergency around the opioid epidemic in 2017. Several other states, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Florida, have declared state-level emergencies. Hochul has declared other disaster emergencies, like one surrounding gun violence. ““Fentanyl and Xylazine have made this public health crisis even more severe and every death can be connected to inaction by government,” González-Rojas said in a statement. “Overdose deaths are only rising and it is time for us to treat this disaster like the COVID-19 and gun violence public health emergencies.”

Hochul has faced criticism over her approach to the opioid epidemic, including her lack of support for supervised injection sites. A panel tasked with determining how best to spend state cash received in settlements with opioid companies has twice recommended using some of those funds to support the sites, which give people a chance to use pre-obtained substances under medical supervision in order to prevent overdose deaths. But Hochul’s administration has so far declined to heed that recommendation due to the fact that such sites remain illegal under federal, state and local law. So far, only two exist in the state in New York City under an agreement with the mayor and local police.

The letter does not call on Hochul to support supervised injection sites, but the opioid settlement fund board again asked the governor to allocate the funds at the start of this year.

Hochul last year launched an Overdose Prevention Task Force in a bid to tackle the epidemic facing the state. In December, she touted the speed at which New York had distributed opioid settlement funds compared to other states as part of a year-end update on what she called “nation-leading” actions to address the crisis. Hochul and her office have consistently pointed to about $2.8 billion in investments into addiction services since she has taken office. And she has spoken about having personally lost a loved one to an overdose on more than one occasion.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan task force from Staten Island called on Hochul to declare a disaster emergency over the opioid epidemic as well.