Trump to Declare Opioid Crisis a Public-Health Emergency — Which Isn’t What He Promised

Trump with Chris Christie during a drug-abuse listening session in March. Photo: Shawn Thew - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump on Thursday will declare the opioid crisis in the U.S. a public-health emergency, a move that will waive regulations and free up resources to help battle an epidemic that’s killing upwards of 140 people a day. Trump’s announcement will come 77 days after he first said he’d declare the crisis a national emergency and ten days after he reaffirmed that pledge in the White House Rose Garden.

But by declaring a public health emergency instead, Trump has taken a half measure. While experts say the move will help in the fight against opioid addiction, it does not meet the recommendations of Trump’s own drug commission, led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In a report issued in August, the commission called for a national-emergency declaration in order to unlock new federal funds and increase access to the anti-overdose drug naloxone, among other things.

A public health emergency declaration will allow for neither of those. Here’s some of what it would do, according to Vox:

It will allow states to shift federal funds dedicated for HIV to also deal with opioid addiction. HIV and opioid use are linked, because HIV can spread through shared needles; Indiana, for example, suffered a big HIV epidemic as a result of opioid misuse.

It will let patients use telemedicine to get medication-assisted treatment, the gold standard of opioid addiction care, in which medications like buprenorphine and methadone are prescribed to treat addiction. This could help overcome a major hurdle in rural states hit by the crisis, such as West Virginia, which has the highest drug overdose death rate in the US. It can be difficult to get to a doctor capable of prescribing these treatments in these states.

It will make National Dislocated Worker Grants available to people with opioid addiction. These grants are normally only available to victims of natural disasters.

Crucially, the declaration will also make money in the Public Health Emergency Fund available to the Department of Health and Human Services to use in the fight against this scourge. The problem, as USA Today reports, is that the fund currently has $57,000 in it. That’s a fraction of what a city such as Washington, D.C., spends each year just on naloxone.

The fund could be replenished by Congress though, and early signs point toward Trump kicking the can to the Capitol. Here’s Chris Christie in USA Today: “My view is that this action sends a clear signal from the president that he wants money appropriated into that fund. And it gives Congress a place to go with that money to give the administration some flexibility to use it to be able to use it to deal with some of the most pressing parts of it.”

As it happens, Senate Democrats on Wednesday introduced a bill to give states $45 billion to spend on the epidemic. It’s much more than $57,000, but it’s still, as one anti-addiction advocate told the Times, “woefully, woefully short.”

Trump to Declare Opioid Crisis a Public Health Emergency