President Donald Trump will announce he’s declaring the opioid epidemic an official “public health emergency” in a speech Thursday afternoon, following through on a long-expected action. But Trump’s directive to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is a bit different from the “national emergency” he indicated he would be declaring during a speech in August. And that has some state officials and medical experts arguing that, while the move is a definite step in the right direction, it falls short of what’s necessary to combat the opioid crisis since a jolt of new federal funding won’t automatically be deployed to states and counties.
With a public health emergency declaration, states and HHS will be able to use certain grant money and redirect existing funds to tackle prescription painkiller and heroin addiction. The move will also loosen certain regulations—for instance, by making it easier to expand telemedicine addiction-fighting services—to facilitate new programs.
Those are important measures, according to addiction advocacy groups. But the funding element will be key; and without a “national emergency” declaration as was recommended by Trump’s own opioid commission, that money will have to be appropriated by Congress, frustrating some experts.
“The Administration’s declaration of a public health emergency is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough,” said Jonah Frohlich, managing director at health policy and business advisory firm Manatt Health, in a statement. “More funding is absolutely vital to support city and county programs to confront the fallout from substance use disorders.”
The Trump administration argues that a national emergency isn’t completely necessary, and that new funding to help locales fight opioids may be part of Congressional spending deal. But there are also two important executive vacancies that will likely have to be filled before meaningful national action takes place: a permanent Secretary of Health and Human Services (following former Secretary Tom Price’s resignation) and a drug czar who would coordinate relevant strategies (Trump’s previous nominee, Rep. Tom Marino, withdrew his name from consideration last week).
Addictive opioids were responsible for more than 60% of the 52,000-plus drug overdose deaths in 2016.