After calling the opioid crisis a national emergency in August, President Trump directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to declare the opioid crisis, which claimed more than 59,000 lives in 2016, a public health emergency. His directive does not on its own release additional funds to deal with the crisis – a fact that critics argue reveals a lack of seriousness about addressing the issue.
The designation of a public health emergency does allow for some grant money to be used to hire specialists and expand the use of telemedicine services to treat people in rural areas where doctors are in short supply. However, some health advocates worry that without new funding streams, this declaration will pull public health resources away from other problems such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Andrew Kolodny, MD, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, told the New York Times, “What we need is for the president to seek an appropriation from Congress, I believe in the billions, so that we can rapidly expand access for effective outpatient opioid addiction treatments. Until those treatments are easier to access than heroin or fentanyl, overdose deaths will remain at record-high levels.”
Mr. Trump said his plan would also:
- require training in the safe prescription of opioids for prescribers who work for the federal government
- introduce a federal initiative to develop nonaddictive painkillers
- launch a robust public education campaign
- suspend a rule that prevents Medicaid from funding some drug-rehabilitation facilities
- intensify efforts to block shipments of fentanyl (a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic)
According to the New York Times, the question remains whether HHS will use its authority under the emergency declaration to negotiate lower prices for naloxone, a drug that counteracts opioid overdoses.
The idea of declaring a national emergency was first raised in an interim report prepared by the White House’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which the president convened earlier this year. Emergency declarations are typically reserved for natural disasters, and then-HHS Secretary Tom Price argued publicly that the administration could deploy the needed resources without it.
Sources: New York Times, October 26, 2017; AP News, October 24, 2017; STAT News, October 26, 2017.