President Trump called the opioid epidemic the “worst drug crisis” to strike the U.S. in its history while declaring a public health emergency – not a national emergency as promised earlier in the summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 140 American die every day from an opioid overdose, which made President Trump’s announcement one of the most anticipated of the last few months yet not quite what health care advocates were expecting.
“Nobody has seen anything like this going on now. As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue,” Trump said at a White House ceremony. “It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction. … We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.”
There’s a legal distinction between a public health emergency, which the secretary of Health and Human Services can declare under the Public Health Services Act, and a presidential emergency under the Stafford Act or the National Emergencies Act. The President’s Opioid Commission recommended in July for a declaration of national emergency in order for the president to have more power to waive privacy laws and Medicaid regulations.
However, declaring a public health emergency, which can only last for 90 days and be renewed a number of times, demonstrates the complexity of an opioid crisis that continues to grow through an ever-evolving cycle of addiction, from prescription pain pills to illegal heroin to the lethality of fentanyl.
What the public health emergency won’t do is free up much federal funding. Acting Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan will be given more room to loosen certain regulations that he otherwise would not be able to.
The declaration will expand access to telemedicine to better help those with an addiction in remote areas receive medications; allow for the shifting of resources within HIV/AIDS programs to help people eligible for those programs receive substance use disorder treatments; and more. It could spur a fight for funding in Congress, as Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to put $45 billion toward the epidemic. Many Republicans also back much more funding to combat the epidemic.
The opioid action is the first public health emergency with a nationwide scope since a year-long emergency to prepare for the H1N1 influenza virus in 2009 and 2010.