Trump Declares the Opioid Crisis a Public Health Emergency. What Does That Mean?

Critics say that his plan falls short of the drastic—and costly—effort required to effectively combat the crisis

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President Donald Trump has declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, implementing a plan to address a dire epidemic of drug addiction and overdose in the United States.

As Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the New York Times reports, Trump’s declaration of a public health emergency allows for the allocation of some grant money and permits the hiring of specialists to combat the crisis. His directive also involves the expansion of telemedicine to treat individuals in remote rural areas, where the opioid epidemic is particularly severe. Trump also said that he would lift a rule that prevents Medicaid from funding community-based addiction treatment programs if they have more than 16 beds.

Additionally, under the new plan, the National Institute of Health will be instructed to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies to develop non-addictive painkillers, according to Alessandra Potenza of the Verge. In an effort to reduce the number of potentially addictive opioid prescriptions doled out to patients, federally employed prescribers will also be required to undergo special training. And Trump said that his administration will launch a “massive advertising campaign” to discourage Americans from taking the drugs in the first place.

In July, the White House opioid commission recommended that the president "make an emergency declaration" in order to “force Congress to focus on funding,” as the commission put it in their report. Trump announced shortly after that he would be making the move. But while Congressional Republicans, along with some law enforcement and physicians’ groups, have praised Trump’s directive on Thursday, others have said it falls short of the drastic effort required to combat the opioid crisis.

Trump did not, for instance, designate the epidemic as a national emergency, which is different than a public health emergency and would have released funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Instead, the declaration frees up money from a public health emergency fund—which is currently worth only $57,000, according to Lev Facher of STATExperts have estimated that it will take billions of dollars to effectively address the opioid epidemic.

The number of overdose deaths caused by prescription opioids has quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2015 alone, more than 15,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Jeff Mason of Reuters report that the crisis is also being driven by the use of heroin and fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid that is used to alleviate advanced cancer pain and is often sold on illegal drug markets. When combined, the mixture of fentanyl and heroin can be fatal.

As part of his plan, Trump said he would work on blocking shipments of fentanyl, which is manufactured in China, from entering the United States.

Speaking on a conference call with reporters, administration officials said that Federal Emergency Management Agency funds have been “exhausted” in the wake of recent storms that pummelled Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, according to Reuters. Officials added that they had determined a public health emergency declaration was the best course of action, and that the administration would soon work with Congress to secure additional funding to tackle the crisis.

Announcing the directive on Thursday, Trump said that “[n]o part of our society — not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural — has been spared this plague of drug addiction and this horrible, horrible situation that’s taken place with opioids,” reports Hirschfeld Davis.

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