Gov. Greg Abbott says state should fund distribution of medication that can reverse opioid overdose

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday said he wants to see greater access to medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, such as Narcan. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune, Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune)

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BEAUMONT — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday said the state should fund the distribution of an overdose reversal medication to help curb the growing number of opioid-related deaths.

During a press conference at the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Beaumont, the governor blamed President Joe Biden’s border policies for allowing an influx of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has contributed to a nationwide increase in overdose deaths. But in a marked shift from his previous laser focus on border security, Abbott said the state should begin funding distribution of Narcan, a drug that reverses and blocks the effects of opioids including fentanyl.

“The bottom line is, this is something we have to distribute across the state of Texas,” Abbott said. “We’ll need to look for the areas where fentanyl is found most predominantly and make sure Narcan is easily available there.”

Abbott said the drug should be given to law enforcement agencies, and must also be sent to some hospitals and schools.

The governor did not clarify how the drug distribution would be funded.

A federally funded state program called “More Narcan Please” that gives out the life-saving drug for free ran out of money in January, in part due to high demand.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 107,000 people died from overdoses in 2021, a 15% increase from 2020. From April 2021 to April 2022, 4,839 Texans died of a drug-related overdose, a 63.4% increase in fatalities over the last three years, based on CDC estimates.

For the past few months, Abbott has focused on the U.S.-Mexico border, investing millions of dollars in Operation Lone Star. He recently declared Mexican cartels that produce and traffic fentanyl to be terrorist organizations and called on the president to do the same.

“Cartels are terrorists, and it’s time we started treating them that way,” Abbott said on Monday.

During the news conference, Abbott also unveiled a new public information campaign called “One Pill Kills” to inform communities about the devastating effects of fentanyl. He said several state agencies, including the Health and Human Services Commission and the state’s education department, would play a role in educating the public about fentanyl.

He also called for new laws, including one that would designate fentanyl-related deaths as poisonings instead of overdoses. Another proposed law would allow prosecutors to charge a person with murder if they lace a drug that causes a drug overdose with fentanyl.

Abbott has made the influx of opioids across the southern border a hallmark issue during his reelection campaign. During one of Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke’s campaign events earlier this year, members of Abbott’s campaign team distributed empty fentanyl bottles to attendees. The labels on the bottles read “Beto Biden Open Border Crisis.”

O’Rourke hasn’t placed the fentanyl issue front and center on the campaign trail during his 2022 run for governor. But during his unsuccessful bid for president in 2020, he unveiled a plan to address the crisis by, among other initiatives, tackling the illegal importation of fentanyl and ensuring access to treatment.

Tori Larned, O’Rourke’s spokesperson, criticized Abbott in a statement for failing to expand Medicaid and for not investing in Narcan earlier in his term. O’Rourke would work across the aisle to legalize fentanyl test strips and to provide police departments with state funding for Narcan, she said.

“Beto will also lead the greatest expansion of mental health care access and substance abuse support in Texas history by expanding Medicaid,” she said. “This is the best way to increase access to affordable mental and behavioral health care, including addiction treatment to 1.7 million Texans.”