Baker may join Trump opioid panel
Governor has called drug crisis a top issue
By Jim O’Sullivan
Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker, increasingly defined by his uncomfortable political relationship with President Trump, was in line Wednesday for a presidential appointment to a panel aimed at fighting opioid addiction, individuals in Boston and Washington familiar with the matter said.

The appointment would put Baker at the center of national efforts to combat the opioid crisis, which has killed thousands of people in Massachusetts — and thousands more across the country.

The selection would also mark another twist in the awkward connection between Trump and Baker, a Republican who refused to vote for Trump last November and has sharply criticized the president on issues including immigration and health care.

Baker, who said before taking office that battling the opioid crisis would be a key agenda item for his governorship, was set to join a panel of presidential appointees that would include Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and Baker political ally, is chairing the commission.

Baker last year signed what he called “the most comprehensive measure in the country to combat opioid addiction.’’ It restricted initial opioid prescriptions to a one-week supply and mandated that Massachusetts hospitals administer a substance-abuse evaluation to people appearing in emergency rooms believed to be suffering from opioid overdoses.

Baker also proposed allowing hospitals to hold addicts who pose a danger to themselves or others against their will for three days, evaluate them, and decide whether to seek legal permission for longer commitments, a measure ultimately rejected by the Legislature.

The governor’s aides say that his administration had been a national leader in confronting the opioid crisis. Baker chairs the National Governors Association’s health and human services committee and helped develop an antiaddiction compact that was adopted by 46 other states.

Nonetheless, last month the state Department of Public Health said that unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts had probably risen for a sixth straight year in 2016, approaching 1,500 confirmed fatalities. That report estimated an increase of up to 24 percent from 2015, and an overdose count more than triple what it had been five years earlier.

The governor has rarely supported Trump’s initiatives, and he cheered last week’s failure of the Republican health care bill. But addressing the addiction crisis has been a largely nonpartisan effort, and Baker advisers believe they may have found an issue on which Baker can work with Trump without tarnishing his more moderate brand of Republicanism back home. He is widely expected to run for reelection in 2018.

Baker’s alignment with the president drew Democratic criticism on Wednesday.

“The Trump administration is trying to score political points by paying lip service to the opioid epidemic at the same time they’re trying to take treatment coverage away from families,’’ US Representative Katherine Clark said in a statement, referring to the GOP bill that would have repealed the 2010 health care expansion passed under then-President Barack Obama. “I don’t think Massachusetts families will appreciate Governor Baker’s involvement if this turns out to be another of Trump’s charades.’’

According to the White House, the executive order that Trump signed to create the opioid commission calls for identifying federal funding mechanisms for treatment, assessing addiction treatment services, identifying best practices, reviewing systemic barriers to treatment, and potentially changing federal laws and regulations. The commission’s findings are due this fall.

Baker has taken hits from Democrats for budget cuts, amid ongoing deficits, to antiaddiction programs. In December, the Senate Ways and Means chairwoman, Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said Baker’s midyear budget reductions took about $6 million from homelessness and housing services, $1.9 million from substance abuse prevention, $900,000 from HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and $400,000 from services for terminally ill children.

The December cuts, for instance, took $25,000 from an antisubstance abuse program in Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood hit particularly hard by overdoses.

On Tuesday, business and labor leaders from around the state met at a downtown hotel to roll out a new alliance against opioid addiction. Baker and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh joined them.

“He has really led on this issue, and I think it’s important they asked him to participate,’’ said Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans.

Raymond V. Tamasi, president of the Gosnold substance abuse and mental health facility on Cape Cod, said the state’s approaches to prescription limits and recovery coaches have been picked up in other states, even as the crisis endures.

“Keeping this in the forefront is a challenge,’’ Tamasi said. “This is not something that’s going to go away with one swipe of the pen, and I think he’s in it for the long haul.’’

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.