A “Competence Vacuum” in Trump’s Opioid Response Team

In January, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) outlined its strategy “to address, head on, the current opioid crisis”—yet they failed to provide the legally required numbers that are used to assess the agency’s progress towards reducing overdose deaths, according to new testimony presented before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s hearing, “Trump Administration’s Response to the Drug Crisis.”

On March 6, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed ONDCP’s 2019 National Drug Control Strategy—which aims, according to President Trump, to “strengthen vulnerable families and communities, and… help to build and grow a stronger, healthier, and drug-free society.” GAO concluded that the strategy misses a key requirement of the recently passed SUPPORT Act: “annual quantifiable and measurable objectives and specific targets to accomplish long-term quantifiable goals.”

The strategy does list goals and associated “metrics”—but it does not actually explain “how they would be quantified or measured, or targets to be achieved each year,” according to the GAO report. Sufficient quantifications would require figures related to “baseline current performance,” “annual targets,” and “timelines.”

For example, the ONDCP identifies “educating the public, especially adolescents, about drug use” as a key goal. But, as GAO notes, tangible targets, like “the number of adolescents educated or specific knowledge gains,” remain nowhere to be seen.

Additionally, the ONDCP aims to use access to “evidence-based addiction treatment, particularly medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction,” as a way to measure its goal of creating a drug-free country. But as with its educational aspirations, the ONDCP is silent on how it can be held accountable for following through on these stated goals.

This failure to offer a clear drug control strategy, which is “under law, one of the most basic, important jobs of ONDCP,” as described by Chairman Elijah E. Cummings in his opening statement for the hearing, is nothing new, according to GAO.  The insufficient strategy is “particularly concerning in light of previous GAO reports” that reported similar shortcomings.

Data from the ONDCP with “quantifiable 2-year and 5-year benchmarks” is forthcoming, according to testimony given by ONDCP director, James Carrol.

“There’s both a leadership vacuum and competence vacuum at the head of the ONDCP,” said Chairman Elijah E. Cummings in his opening statement for the hearing, titled “Trump Administration’s Response to the Drug Crisis.” “And it pains me to even say that, but that’s what I truly believe.”

“Without effective long-term plans, such as a national strategy, that clearly articulate goals and objectives and without specific measures to track performance,” notes the GAO report, “federal agencies cannot fully assess whether taxpayer dollars are invested in ways that will achieve desired outcomes.”


Screenshot: House Oversight Committee via Youtube

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