OPINION: Dunleavy’s rosy messaging ignores Alaska’s overdose death crisis

By Bill Walker and Heidi Drygas

Anchorage Daily News, September 12

Mike Dunleavy is making a last-ditch effort to try and convince Alaskans that our communities have never been safer and that things have never been better for our state and economy. People in villages, cities and everywhere in between, however, recognize that his campaign spin is just another lie intended to distort reality for his own benefit.

In just the past year, Dunleavy vetoed state funding for drug dogs, failed to get the state to focus on seizure efforts that block dangerous drugs from making it into our state in the first place, and wasted time contributing to an extreme, false national narrative that blames all of our struggles on challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border.

At the same time, Alaska experienced a 71% increase in fentanyl deaths. That is four times the national average, and opioid deaths have more than doubled on Dunleavy’s watch and increased at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country.

This is a heart-wrenching reversal from where my administration left off. I was one of the country’s first governors to declare a statewide opioid emergency, charting a course for people impacted by addiction and those working on solutions to reduce overdose deaths to come together and find solutions. I also aggressively pursued more than $36 million in grant funding to combat the opioid epidemic. Finally, in partnership with the late Sen. Johnny Ellis, we got a lifesaving drug, Narcan, into the hands of more Alaskans. As a result of this work, during my administration, we saw a 36% decrease in overdose deaths.

We can’t say our state is healthy while we are leading the country in overdose deaths. We can’t take Dunleavy’s “‘mission accomplished’ banner” on public safety seriously as long as most communities in our state still have no law enforcement at all.

Heidi and I can and will do better for people struggling with addiction, beginning with these five steps:

  • Reinstate the Opioid Response Structure, disbanded under Dunleavy, including the Incident Command System to once again create a unified approach across all departments to utilize opportunities for funding, public communication, law enforcement, and providers to coordinate on prevention and response;
  • Reinstate robust grant programs for diversion, treatment and therapy in all regions of Alaska;
  • Ensure that all regions of Alaska had support for grant writing and application, administration of those grants;
  • Ensure robust federal funding outreach for all levels;
  • Reinstitute the Community Assistance Program for municipalities and cities, so that adequate municipal-level response is possible.

Alaska is experiencing crisis levels of opioid deaths on Mike Dunleavy’s watch. As Dr. Jay Butler, former Health and Social Services Commissioner, has said, “Statistics are just numbers without the tears attached.”

Behind every statistic is a family whose lives are forever impacted by the loss of their loved one to opioids. Alaska deserves a governor who will confront this crisis head-on with meaningful solutions, not with meaningless soundbites in an election year.

Bill Walker served as the 11th governor of Alaska and is running for that position again on Nov. 8 alongside lieutenant governor candidate Heidi Drygas, who was Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development. Bill, a former Republican, and Heidi, a former Democrat, formed a Unity Ticket and are running as independents.