President Donald Trump will declare the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency on Thursday, according to senior administration officials.
The declaration would direct all federal agencies to make the crisis their number one priority. It would include awareness and prevention programs and allow the federal government to work with states to redistribute already-available grants that support substance abuse efforts.
Officials said the administration is in ongoing discussions with Congress about allocating additional funds in the year-end budget, but would not discuss actual amounts being negotiated.
“Show me the money,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
The California Democrat pointed to the fiscal 2018 budget resolution and the president’s proposed cuts to health and drug programs in his fiscal 2018 request.
The administration supports efforts to train pharmacists and doctors to improve prescribing practices, drug courts that provide treatment instead of jail, and expanding services to rural areas of the country.
The declaration fulfills President Donald Trump’s promise to officially designate the opioid crisis an “emergency,” and marks the rare use of emergency authorities to deal with a long-simmering chronic health issue instead of disease outbreaks or natural disasters. Public health emergencies were recently declared after hurricanes in gulf coast states and Puerto Rico and wildfires in California.
Public health emergencies expire after 90 days and must be renewed thereafter. But the opioid emergency could last for a very long time. Of the approximately 50,000 deaths due to drug overdose in 2015, around 33,000 of those were caused by a prescription opioid, heroin or fentanyl, a powerful opioid derivative, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preliminary data for 2016 indicate that there were closer to 65,000 drug overdose deaths that year, with the share caused by opioids likely to rise.
Trump has made opioid abuse a priority, and some of his appointees have followed through on his earlier instructions to address the issue.
At the Food and Drug Administration, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and his team have begun examining how to improve education for opioid prescribers and whether they can impose stricter dosing requirements.
Yesterday, the FDA announced that it would work on education related to treating addiction and try to lift the stigma involved with taking drugs that treat addiction. The FDA has also increased the number of employees stationed at international mail facilities to screen for shipments of illicit fentanyl, which is usually sent from overseas.
The National Institutes of Health has begun working with drug companies on research into more effective drug treatments and non-opioid pain alternatives.
Otherwise, the administration has simply been carrying out policies put in place under President Obama. The Department of Health and Human Services has distributed $485 million in state grants, which were authorized at the end of Obama’s term.
Former HHS Secretary Tom Price took little other action on the issue before resigning in September. He resigned after revelations about his use of private aircraft to travel around the country, trips which were often meant to speak with local officials about the opioid crisis.
There has also been a leadership vacuum on the issue at the White House. Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway has acted as a spokesperson, but there is not yet a “drug czar” to coordinate the response across the federal government.
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., had been nominated to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy but withdrew himself from consideration last week. His withdrawal came after The Washington Post and 60 Minutes reported his involvement in a law that allegedly made it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after manufacturers involved in suspicious sales. The DEA itself is also being run by an acting administrator, Robert W. Patterson, who took over earlier this month. The previous DEA chief, Chuck Rosenberg, was also serving in an acting capacity and resigned because of a dislike for Trump.