The relentless pace of grim news about the nation’s opioid addiction crisis continues. On a national level, rock legend Tom Petty’s family revealed recently that the singer died from an overdose fueled in part by prescription painkillers.
Closer to home, law enforcement officials just announced that a record of number people in the state’s most populous county — Hennepin — died in 2017 from opioid overdoses. An early tally just released by the county’s sheriff shows 162 fatalities linked to these drugs, which are legally available by prescription but often abused or sold illegally on the street. That is a nearly 50 percent increase in deaths since 2015, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said Wednesday.
The ongoing public health crisis requires expert and energetic local, state and federal leadership to prevent more needless deaths. While Minnesota’s medical providers and those in law enforcement such as Stanek are rising to the challenge, strong federal partners are a must. Unfortunately, there are serious questions about whether the Trump administration has tapped qualified people for key posts at two major agencies involved in the effort.
A recent Washington Post investigation put a disturbing spotlight on one of these appointees — 24-year-old Taylor Weyeneth, who had risen rapidly to serve in one of the top posts at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The agency, whose head is often referred to as the administration’s drug czar, plays a critical role in shaping drug policy and coordinating strategy across federal agencies. It also distributes millions in drug-prevention grants, with the agency’s work winning admirers such as Stanek, who praised it in a 2017 Star Tribune editorial.
So how is it that Weyeneth, a former Trump campaign worker, went from “low-level” staffer to deputy chief of staff, as the Post chronicled? The answer has much to do with rapid turnover at the ONDCP, which still does not have a permanent director. Weyeneth was a warm body and apparently just kept getting handed more of the work and the title to go along with it.
Amid further allegations that Weyeneth overstated his experience on his résumé, the White House announced last week that he will step down by the end of January. His departure, however, falls far short of assuaging concerns about the agency’s ability to carry out its vital mission.
The Trump nominee for another important post at a different agency underscores concerns about the competency of appointees with responsibility for halting opioid abuse. American Indians have the highest opioid overdose death rate of any ethnic group in the U.S. And yet the qualifications of Trump’s nominee to lead the Indian Health Service, Robert Weaver, are in dispute.
The agency, which has a yearly budget appropriation of $4.8 billion and serves 2.2 million Indians and Alaska Natives, is clearly on the front lines in the fight against opioids and other drug abuse. Yet the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Weaver may have “misrepresented” his experience and qualifications.
The Indian Health Service has long been plagued by concerns about its facilities, staffing and care — documented in painful detail in a July 7 Wall Street Journal article. There is no room for doubt about the competency or veracity of its new leader.
Weaver remains the nominee at this point, according to U.S. Sen. John Hoeven’s office. The North Dakota Republican chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. His home state and nearby states, such as Minnesota, are home to many Indian nations. Hoeven and his Senate colleagues must ensure that the agency has the leadership its patients deserve, especially in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic.