WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2017 – President Donald Trump today said he’s ordering the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) to declare the opioid epidemic a national “public health emergency” but he failed to earmark any new money to deal with the crisis.
The declaration, which applies to a 90-day period and can be renewed, does allow some grant money to be used for a number of efforts aimed at reversing the problem, but falls short of Trump’s previous promise to declare a “national emergency” on the painkillers. Such a declaration would have freed up funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has recently committed billions to help hurricane victims.
The president made his announcement at the White House with his wife Melania by his side and in front of a large group of former drug users, family members who’ve been affected by the crisis, health professionals and first responders. He said the U.S. is facing the worst drug crisis in its history, with an estimated 64,000 overdose deaths last year, mostly from abuse of opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin.
“This epidemic is a national health emergency unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime,” Trump said. “As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue ... We can be the generation that ends this epidemic. We can do it.”
Critics of the plan surfaced before it was formally announced.
"Show me the money," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who called the declaration "words without the money."
Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, called Trump’s action “a step in the right direction, but a very small step.”
“Public health emergencies are for 90-day periods,” Rosselli said. “Overcoming opioid addiction takes time; it’s not like flicking a light switch … The Trump administration needs to acknowledge that this is a mental health issue and immediately direct additional resources and support to mental health care services.”
But others say Trump’s declaration will shine a spotlight on the problem and possibly spur Congress to come up with a dedicated source of funding to combat the epidemic.
One lawmaker who could play a crucial role in financing the battle against opioid abuse is Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who applauded the administration’s attention to the crisis.
“The opioid crisis is a public health and safety challenge that should not be underestimated,” Cochran said in a statement. “Over the past few years, the Appropriations Committee has approved significant new funding throughout the government to address this crisis, including money for opioid interdiction, prevention and treatment programs.” In addition, he said the panel “welcomes the opportunity to work with the president and his administration to make more progress on this problem, which has already ruined so many lives.”
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called the declaration “a historic step to direct additional resources to help address the staggering human and economic toll” created by the epidemic.
“We are committed to taking additional steps under the new declaration of a public health emergency to more forcefully confront this immense national tragedy,” Gottlieb said in a statement. “This includes taking aggressive steps to prevent new addictions and opioid-related deaths, and help those currently addicted regain control and restore them to their communities.”
The president today stressed that he’s mobilizing his entire administration to address the drug scourge. The White House said the declaration:
--Allows for expanded access to telemedicine services, which could give a boost to USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program. The initiative has funded hundreds of telemedicine projects nationwide, many addressing mental health problems;
--Helps overcome bureaucratic delays and inefficiencies in the hiring process by allowing DHS to more quickly make temporary appointments of specialists with the talents needed to respond to the public health emergency;
--Allows the Labor Department to issue grants to help workers who’ve been displaced from the workforce because of the opioid crisis, subject to available funding;
--Allows for shifting of resources within HIV/AIDS programs to help people eligible for those programs to receive substance abuse treatment, which the White House said is important given the connection between HIV transmission and substance abuse.
Trump also noted that the final report of the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which he established in March, is due out next week and promised to “quickly move to implement appropriate recommendations.” He said the report is going to have “tremendous impact, believe me.”
In addition, the president promised to enlist the help of Chinese President Xi Jinping in cracking down on Chinese traffickers in the powerful opioid fentanyl when he visits the Asian nation next month, and he promised a “massive” advertising campaign to persuade young people not to start doing drugs in the first place.
“Watch what happens when those (addiction) numbers begin to fall,” Trump said. “It will be a beautiful thing to see.”
Toward the end of his address, Trump told the East Room crowd that he and his family had had first-hand experience dealing with addiction. His older brother Fred, he recounted, struggled with alcoholism and died in 1981 at age of 43.
“To this day I’ve never had a drink,” Trump said. His brother, an airline pilot, “had a very, very, very tough life because of alcohol … He was a strong guy but it was a tough, tough thing that he was going through. But I learned because of Fred, I learned.”