After months of promising to take sweeping action to combat the deadliest drug crisis in American history, President Donald Trump will declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
“Effective today, my administration is officially declaring the opioid crisis a national public health emergency,” Trump said in a speech at the White House Thursday afternoon. “We are currently dealing with the worst drug crisis in American history.”
In his speech, Trump emphasized his intention to launch an education effort to prevent drug use, discussing his brother, Fred Trump’s personal experience with addiction and how he would tell him not to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.
“This is a worldwide problem, this crisis of drug use, addiction, and overdose deaths,” Trump said. “The United States is by far the largest consumer of these drugs, using more opioid pills per person than any other country by far. No part of our society — not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural has been spared of this horrible plague.”
The President, according to White House officials, will direct acting Health Secretary Eric Hargan to declare the public health emergency under the Public Health Services Act. Under the act, it will direct the federal agencies to provide more grants to combat the epidemic.
“It will reorient all of the federal government and executive branch resources toward focusing on providing relief to this urgent need,” a senior White House official said prior to Trump speech.
Before speaking at the White House, First lady Melanie Trump spoke about families and friends she had met of opioid users and told of the stories of addicts and of some who had overdosed.
“I have recently taken a larger interest in what I can do to help fight this epidemic,” Melania said. “I have been participating in meetings and I have been visiting with people who have been affected. I have learned so much from those brave enough to talk about the epidemic. This can happen to any of us. Drug addiction can take your friend, neighbor or family. No state has been spared.”
Earlier this month, the First lady visited Lily’s Place in West Virginia, a nonprofit recovery center that helps infants suffering from prenatal drug exposure.
“As many of you know, addiction effects children, many different ways, and I have recently taken a larger interest in what I can do to help this epidemic,” Melania said.
Trump promised to declare the opioid crisis as a national emergency over the summer. A commission to study the opioid crisis headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called on the president in an interim report to declare it a national emergency under the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act. In declaring it a national emergency, funds for treatments could be freed up to ensure wider access to the drug naloxone, an anti-overdose drug, and improve monitoring of opioid prescriptions to prevent addiction.
However, the White House said that declaring it a public health emergency was more appropriate than a national emergency, arguing that the designation to tap into Federal Emergency Management Agency’ funds is meant for natural disasters, not health emergencies. Public health emergencies expire after 90 days, but the administration can easily renew it until it is no longer needed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 140 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. In 2011, the CDC first declared opioids, as well as some street drugs to be an “epidemic.”
Earlier this week, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that prescription drugs, specifically opioid painkillers are the single largest cause of overdose death since 2001. It also reports that the use of heroin and synthetic opioid fentanyl is rising, costing lives to new heights.
“More people are dying from drug overdoses today than from gun homicide and motor vehicles [crashes] combined,” Trump said. “I want the American people to know the federal government is aggressively fighting the opioid epidemic on all fronts.”
Trump said he would be looking at the possibility of bringing “major lawsuits against people and companies” that are hurting Americans, as well as ensuring a particular kind of “truly evil” opioid — fentanyl is then off the market immediately.
The order also directs the administration to work with Congress to approve additional funding during the end-of-the year budget negotiations, since the Public Health Emergency Fund reportedly has $57,000 and hasn’t replenished it for years.
After speaking, President Trump signed a presidential memorandum that ordered the Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive regulations, while giving states more flexibility in determining how to appropriate federal funds. The declaration also allows for expanding access to “telemedicine” services and making treatment more accessible for abusers.