By John Wagner
President Trump on Thursday declared the country’s opioid crisis a national emergency, saying the scourge exceeded anything he had seen with other drugs in his lifetime.
“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,” Trump said, speaking to reporters outside a national security briefing at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is on a working vacation. “It is a serious problem, the likes of which we’ve never had. You know, when I was growing up, they had the LSD, and they had certain generations of drugs. There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years.”
The designation will allow the administration to remove some barriers and waive some federal rules enabling states and localities to have more flexibility to respond.
One such rule restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment. It could also put pressure on Congress to provide more funding.
In March, Trump established the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which is led by N.J. Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Last week, the commission issued a preliminary report that described the overdose death toll as “September 11th every three weeks” and urged the president to immediately “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”
The report said that 142 Americans were dying every day of drug overdoses, based on 2015 statistics – but new federal data released early Tuesday signaled that the average daily toll is up significantly.
Trump’s declaration Thursday came just days after he received an extended briefing on the subject in Bedminster.
Afterward, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told reporters that declaring a national emergency is a step usually reserved for “a time-limited problem,” like the Zika outbreak or problems caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Price said that the administration can do the same sorts of things without declaring an emergency, though he said Trump was keeping the option on the table.
Trump attracted criticism, especially from Democrats, including County Executive Mark Poloncarz, when he didn’t initially declare a national opioid emergency.
Poloncarz, speaking Thursday just a few hours before Trump declared an emergency, commended the president for convening his bipartisan Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, but took him to task for stressing a law enforcement approach and not immediately acting on the commission’s main recommendation to declare an emergency.
“We can’t arrest and prosecute ourselves out of this epidemic,” Poloncarz said.
Such national declarations allow states and municipalities to obtain federal funds and use them for issues other than natural disasters and public health threats, although Congress could also allocate more money for opioid programs, if it chose to do so, as well.
Poloncarz spoke near a stand at the fair where volunteers from the Erie County Opioid Epidemic Task Force provided educational material about addictive opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, as well as free training on how to recognize an overdose and treat a victim with the nasal spray naxoxlone.
Individuals with prescription coverage, in an initiative the state started on Wednesday, can obtain low- or no-cost naloxone, also known as Narcan, at pharmacies. Those without insurance can receive naloxone at no cost through registered opioid overdose prevention programs, state officials said.
Cheryll Moore, medical care administrator with the county, said 10 to 15 people a day at the fair were being trained to use naloxone, and many more were stopping by to peruse the material.
“The key is to look at this as a medical disease that can be treated and not a choice,” Moore said. “No one wakes up and decides to be an addict.”
– News Medical Reporter Henry L. Davis contributed to this report.