A federal office tasked with managing U.S. drug-control policy isn't doing its job, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office published Thursday.
The government watchdog found that the Office of National Drug Control Policy failed to deliver a strategic plan in 2017 or 2018, even though its core function is to oversee and coordinate the development and implementation the federal government's drug-control policies. That's worrisome because nearly 70,000 people died from drug overdoses last year, and there's no comprehensive plan to address it.
The office has only partially fulfilled its obligations for 2019, according to the GAO. The watchdog noted that the office "lacked required data on the unmet need for substance use disorder treatment," among other issues.
"ONDCP officials had no information on next steps for fully meeting the requirements," the GAO said.
Federal law requires the so-called "drug czar" to develop a strategy every year to determine whether agencies have the budgetary resources to implement it. But the office couldn't meet this requirement for the past couple of years without a clear plan.
The Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities—Support Act—created new requirements for the ONDCP in 2018. Under that law, the office must elaborate on how it will achieve and evaluate its strategic goals and expand substance use disorder treatment.
"ONDCP could not provide in writing or otherwise describe its planned steps, interim milestones, resource investments, or overall timeframes—all key planning elements—that would provide assurance it can meet these requirements by the deadline for the next strategy," the GAO said.
The GAO recommended that the agency improve its planning and documentation processes and establish an online database of drug-control data.
Congress passed the Support Act to make it easier for providers to treat people suffering from opioid addiction. Both parties overwhelmingly supported the legislation. But implementation is proving harder than anticipated because of an overabundance of complex and conflicting rules and the inherent difficulty of delivering effective treatment.
The ONDCP largely agreed with the GAO's assessment of its planning and project management problems, but took issue with the watchdog's characterization of its drug-control database efforts, saying that it was in full compliance with the law. The office also said that it offered budgetary guidance in 2017 and 2018, even though that guidance was not in service of a specific, articulated strategic plan. In response to the GAO's critique of the 2019 strategy, the drug czar's office argued that it fully complies with the law.
"Even if one accepts GAO's conclusions as accurate, ONDCP may have complied with more than 90% of the requirements (for its 2019 strategy)," ONDCP said in its response.
The drug czar needs to have its next strategic plan ready to go by February, but it's unclear whether the office will be able to meet that deadline.