With Overdose Deaths at All-Time High, Hochul Ignores Calls to Declare Emergency

The governor has neglected to announce a public emergency over the increasingly deadly opioid epidemic. Observers are perplexed.

Spencer Norris   ·   December 14, 2023
Kathy Hochul stands with her hands spread at a podium reading "Combatting the Opioid Epidemic"
Governor Kathy Hochul announces allocation of first-year opioid settlement funds on October 30, 2023. | Susan Watts / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

As New York hits the zenith of the opioid overdose crisis, pressure is mounting on Governor Kathy Hochul to declare a public health emergency. So is confusion over why she hasn’t done so already.

“I don’t really understand the reticence,” said Christopher Assini, policy director for Friends of Recovery New York. “People are dying and not enough is being done to mitigate it.”

Massachusetts became the first state to declare a state of emergency over the opioid crisis in 2014, and at least seven other states have since taken the step. The federal government declared one in 2017. The orders give state leaders expanded authority to boost a variety of public health measures.

Not in New York. Two decades into the opioid epidemic, New York’s chief executive has yet to take advantage of the additional powers she could use to combat the crisis.

In the meantime, New York has broken its record for overdose deaths every year since 2019. New York City reported an all-time high for overdose deaths in 2022. The most recent provisional data from the federal government predict 6,900 drug overdose deaths statewide from July 2022 to July 2023.

“Overdose numbers are going up over 10 percent every year in New York state. They are sort of leveling off, if not going down, in other states and nationally,” said Robert Kent, the former general counsel for New York’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports. “We don’t see the kind of action [in New York] that people would hope and expect when you’re losing that many people consistently every year.”

According to addiction and public health professionals who spoke with New York Focus, a public health emergency could allow the governor to temporarily suspend staffing minimums at treatment facilities, waive copays for addiction treatment, accelerate the release of opioid settlement funds, or even establish overdose prevention centers, which the Hochul administration has said could run afoul of federal law.

“I think that the executive and the legislature think they’re doing enough.”

—Christopher Assini, Friends of Recovery

It’s unclear why the governor has declined to take these steps.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the governor said: “As one of the millions of Americans who lost a loved one to overdose, Governor Hochul is committed to aggressively tackling the opioid crisis and has invested a historic $2.8 billion in addiction services since taking office. Governor Hochul will continue making smart, responsible investments to address the extraordinary scale of this crisis and deliver support to those who need it.”

In interviews with New York Focus, seven policy experts and advocates called on the governor to declare the public health emergency. An eighth submitted a letter to the Opioid Settlement Advisory Board echoing their position.

“The deaths have continued to climb year after year after year,” said John Coppola, co-CEO of advocacy group InUnity Alliance. “We haven’t reached a point yet where we said, this is a public health crisis that demands our attention. And the best way to do that is to declare a public health emergency.”

To advocates, there’s a disconnect between the executive’s priorities and the issues facing the state. New York’s two most recent governors have used executive orders to declare emergencies on everything from COVID-19 to gun violence to the migrant crisis to a water main break in Jefferson County. Opioids killed nearly five times as many New Yorkers as firearms in 2021, the year that former Governor Andrew Cuomo declared the public health emergency on guns. Hochul has renewed her predecessor’s public health emergency declaration at least 11 times as of Thursday.

“Overdose numbers are going up every year in New York state. They are leveling off in other states and nationally.”

—Robert Kent, former OASAS general counsel

Such declarations have allowed other states to get more up-to-date information on the crisis. In Arizona, officials used the emergency powers to get daily overdose reports, much like COVID caseloads during the pandemic.

In contrast, New York is continually behind the ball. Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer frequently mixed with fentanyl, was involved in nearly one out of five opioid-related deaths in New York City in 2021. But the New York Department of Health didn’t issue a warning until December the following year, or a report until 2023.

While they wait for information to trickle in — and for Hochul to make the declaration — advocates and policy experts are becoming frustrated by the governor’s stony silence. Both Friends of Recovery and InUnity Alliance shared letters addressed to Hochul’s office with New York Focus, demanding a public health emergency declaration. The governor shunned both of them.

“There really hasn’t been any feedback on that,” Assini said. “Just silence.”

Avi Israel, who sits on the Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board, said that he has also been stonewalled by Hochul’s administration. He has reached out to her office multiple times and has yet to hear back, he said. The OSFAB is responsible for steering the state’s strategy for spending the $2.6 billion that New York will receive from the opioid industry over 17 years.

Frustrated, Israel took out an ad in The Buffalo News, the paper of record for Hochul’s hometown, demanding a public health emergency declaration. Hochul’s office did not respond to questions Thursday about whether she had reached out to Israel.

“I think that the executive and the legislature think they’re doing enough,” said Assini. “I think there’s a real disconnect between the addiction care providers and ... the executive when it comes to meeting the needs of this crisis.”

December 15, 2023 — This story has been updated with a statement from the governor’s office sent after publication.

Spencer Norris is a reporter at New York Focus investigating drug policy with a focus on the state’s addiction treatment facilities. He was previously the investigative data reporter at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, where his coverage of sex trafficking won statewide awards and… more
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