President Donald Trump said that he intends to declare a national emergency on the opioid crisis — the administration just needs to work on the official paperwork. This is the first time that a national emergency has been declared a long-term public health crisis, so it’s not clear how exactly it will help fight the opioid epidemic.
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency,” Trump said at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”
The decision comes a few weeks after Trump’s bipartisan opioid commission recommended that the president declare the national emergency in order to “force Congress to focus on funding,” according the commission’s report. “With approximately 142 Americans dying every day,” the preliminary report noted, “America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.”
The number of Americans dying of an overdose involving opioids has quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses, most of them because of opioids. In 2016, under President Barack Obama, Congress approved $1 billion in funding over two years to help states fight the epidemic, but deaths from drug overdoses are continuing to rise.
Declaring a national emergency could have a few different effects on the opioid crisis: it could free up federal money from the Disaster Relief Fund for states and cities to treat addiction and overdoses, for instance. (Money from the DRF is usually used to help states respond to natural disasters like hurricanes.) It could also result in the deployment of medical staff to underserved communities, as well as the training of providers to treat addiction with drugs such as methadone. Declaring an emergency could also allow the government to waive certain rules, like the 1960s-era holdover that prohibits Medicaid from paying for inpatient mental health treatment in facilities with more than 16 beds.
However, it’s also possible the declaration could boost the powers of law enforcement: the administration could seize the opportunity to push for more sentencing laws, boost drug penalties, or even fund the construction of the US-Mexico border wall. Trump claims the wall would stop the flow of drugs into the country, but experts don’t agree with him.
In its report, Trump’s opioid commission — led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie — recommended against the tough-on-crime measures that Trump has often proposed as solutions to the problem. Instead, it advised the administration to expand drug treatment under Medicaid, push for the development of painkillers that are not opioids, provide law enforcement with the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, and broaden laws that protect people who report overdoses.
Additional reporting by Rachel Becker