The Trump administration will not declare a national emergency for the opioid crisis, one of its top public health officials announced on Tuesday, defying a recommendation from the president’s own commission to do so.
Last week, the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis urged President Trump to declare a national emergency and pressure Congress to authorize more funding.
But while Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price left the door open to making such a declaration, he insisted that the federal government already had the resources it needs to combat a crisis that results in dozens of American deaths per day.
“We believe that, as this point, that the resources that we need, or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis at this point can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency, although all things are on the table for the president,” Price said at a news conference in Bedminster, N.J., where the president is vacationing at his golf club and received a briefing on the issue earlier in the day.
Price said that the opioid crisis differed from recently declared national emergencies, which have focused on infectious diseases or specific disaster-stricken parts of the country, namely the Zika virus and the states impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
But health experts say that declaring a national emergency would free up state funding for the opioid crisis in addition to enhancing treatment options for Medicaid recipients. The commission, said Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University, “made good public health recommendations.” That Trump didn’t adopt them was upsetting but, ultimately, not surprising.
“[I]t’s hard to get an arsonist interested in the possibilities afforded by a fire hose,” Humphreys added. “Everything a public health emergency declaration would allow Trump to do he could have done already in the past 8 months simply by working with Congress on the required legislation. But he didn’t do that, indeed he worked to cut the very public health resources an emergency declaration would allow him to expand.”
Prior to Tuesday, there was some trepidation among public health officials that a national emergency declaration would allow the president to expand his authority to perpetuate the war on drugs and empower law enforcement officials for drug-related crimes. And in his public briefing on his commission’s recommendations, Trump himself stated that “strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society.” The president also channeled former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” approach to combatting drug use.
“The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem,” Trump said. “If they do start, it’s awfully tough to get off. So we can keep them from going on, and maybe by talking to youth and telling them, ‘No good; really bad for you’ in every way. But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem.”
Without a national emergency declaration, the burden for increasing funding to fight the epidemic moves further to Congress. But getting lawmakers to authorize extra funding for the crisis has proven to be a tall order. When Senate Republicans were crafting legislation aimed at repealing and replacing Obamacare, they proposed dramatic cuts to Medicaid that would have set back opioid-related treatment, experts said. Moderate senators successfully pushed leadership to counteract that proposal by including $45 billion in new funding to combat the epidemic. But after multiple failed attempts to reach 50 votes, and with Republicans all-but abandoning their efforts to overhaul the health care system, legislative action in the near term is unlikely.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), one of the lawmakers who pushed for more opioid funding throughout the Senate’s repeal-and-replace efforts, said in a statement he was pleased that Trump seemed to be prioritizing the issue. But Portman did not comment on the White House’s refusal to declare a national emergency.
“There is no doubt that this heroin and prescription drug epidemic is a national crisis, and I applaud the president for making this issue a priority,” Portman said.
Trump had emphasized his desire to combat the opioid crisis repeatedly on the campaign trail. And after taking office, he tasked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lead a commission on the matter. In its recent, preliminary report to the president, the commission isused a dire warning.
“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” the report read. “[Declaring a national emergency] would also awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”
Christie did not attend the briefing because he was on vacation in Italy. During an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, the governor said he was confident the president would “adopt” the commission’s recommendations.
A spokesman for Christie did not respond to a request for comment.
—Additional reporting by Sam Stein