SARATOGA SPRINGS – Kellyanne Conway spoke about the opioid crisis. Corey Price discussed immigration and customs enforcement policies. The balance of the near four-hour gathering in the shadow of the White House touched on everything from agriculture and cleaning up radioactive materials to issues faced by military families.
“It was an interesting mix,” says Tara Gaston, one of two Saratoga County supervisors representing Saratoga Springs. Last week, Gaston joined approximately 100 other officials from New York State and New Jersey in Washington D.C. at the invitation of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, who are charged with the responsibility of building relationships with state, county, local, and tribal officials.
Gaston visited the White House then assembled with her colleagues in Room 430 of the Eisenhower Executive Office building - located next to the West Wing – where the group spent the better part of four hours listening to, and in some cases discussing, issues that affect New York and New Jersey residents with a variety of White House departmental officials.
“They would come in and spend about 20 minutes each with us. Most of them gave a rundown of their policies. Not all of them took questions,” Gaston says. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway talked about the opioid crisis.
“She expressed a lot of concern about neonatal abstinence syndrome” – conditions that occur when a baby withdraws from drugs they were exposed to in the womb – “and about the opioid crisis, but she didn’t take any questions,” Gaston says.
“One of my concerns about that it is that we often deal with opioid addiction in terms of a legal issue - resulting in jail time and taking away children - as opposed to a public health issue. So, she didn’t speak about it as a public health issue as much as I would have liked,” Gaston says.
Opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016, more than any previous year on record. An estimated 40 percent of opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Another thing that was interesting is how Human Services have been pushing HIPAA exemptions to allow family members to know if another family member OD’d. I assume the purpose behind that is to know whether you need to have Narcan in your house, to encourage interventions and the like. But, it’s always a little concerning when you’re talking about HIPAA exemptions for adults. I understand why, but it’s a fine line between how you deal with the crisis and also how are we going to protect people’s privacy,” Gaston explained.
Corey Price, assistant director for enforcement at ICE talked about the president’s priorities. “One of those priorities is building more agreements with local law enforcement to issue detainers to hold individuals in custody on immigration issues, so they’re held until ICE interviews them and decides whether to take them into custody or not,” Gaston says. She explains: “Let’s say someone gets a DWI. Local law enforcement can release that individual or alternately contact ICE if there’s an immigration issue and ICE will issue a detainer and come and interview them and decide whether – instead of being released – they’re taken in to Federal Immigration custody. It’s a cooperation agreement between ICE and local law enforcement.
“One of my priorities was trying to communicate, just the uncertainty of the process. The policies keep changing and the administration throws out ideas – maybe they’ll follow them and maybe they won’t – but that leaves a lot of individuals in Saratoga Springs and in Saratoga County confused and frightened,” Gaston says.
Another big regional issue, particularly for those representing the rural areas of their respective states is agriculture in general, and dairy issues, and the ability via H-2A visas to get workers to their farms, specifically. The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. “The Farm Bill, assuming it ever comes out of Congress, will also be a big one that affects our county and how it runs,” Gaston says. The current food and farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30.
“I asked a gentleman from the Domestic Policy Council about veteran families and military families. As a representative of an area with a military population with a lot of veterans as well as being the spouse of a disabled veteran myself, that’s something that concerns me a lot,” Gaston says. “Saratoga County does a lot of work for veterans, but a concern is essentially sustaining our outreach. If we can get funding to help expand the program we already have it would do a lot of good.
“Overall, there was a lot of information packed in there. I would like to see it more in a workshop format with more give-and-take, but the impression we were given is this won’t be the last one of these meetings, Gaston says, adding that there are many issues which have local ramifications, from immigration to law enforcement, to ensuring businesses come to Saratoga County and build into the community. “Some of these things being worked on with trade are really going to have an impact on what we can do as a county,” Gaston says.
“My job is to represent Saratoga County and that means putting our name and a face in front of all the people who can impact us,” the supervisor says. “I have a lot of political differences with the administration, but I do appreciate them reaching out to get (our) point of view. Now it’s a matter of what do they do with it."