President Trump on Thursday said his administration would declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, just two days after his top health official said, after meeting with the president, that such a step was not necessary.
Trump’s remarks came after his commission on combatting drug abuse issued an “urgent” recommendation last week that he issue an emergency declaration.
It’s still unclear what the emergency declaration will look like. The laws that govern such declarations stipulate that the president himself spell out what resources will become available and what new authorities the administration will take on.
“We’re going to draw it up and we’re going to make it a national emergency,” Trump told reporters in New Jersey. “It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.”
“But this is a national emergency and we are drawing documents now to so attest,” he added.
The declaration could help the government negotiate lower prices for naloxone, the overdose reversal medication, but many experts and advocates have said that it would likely be more of a symbolic step and public education tool. Under laws that outline national emergencies, the government can open up additional funding to states and provide technical assistance and manpower to places where local and state resources have been overwhelmed. But major initiatives to expand treatment options, promote more research, and boost funding would still require congressional action or initiatives from federal agencies.
“I think the question really becomes, not that you just say it, but what are the actions behind it? What are the series of actions that you’re going to take as a result of that declaration?” Michael Botticelli, who ran the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama, told STAT earlier this week. “There is some merit to it, but only if that brings along with it real meaningful action.”
On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the administration felt like it had enough resources and focus without needing to declare an emergency, although he added that the option was still on the table.
National emergencies tend to be declared after natural disasters or to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Experts have questioned how officials will be able to measure the effectiveness of an emergency for the opioid crisis and how they will know when to declare it over, given that the opioid epidemic is expected to remain a public health crisis for years to come.
Six states have announced their own opioid-related public health emergency or disaster declarations in recent years, and a seventh, Indiana, issued a declaration to respond to an HIV outbreak that was driven by injection drug abuse.
Some advocates have said that even if the emergency declaration alone does not ease the crisis, it could rally Congress and federal officials to bolster their response even with authorities they already have. But not everyone sees a declaration under the Trump administration as a certain positive step.
“Would this administration use a declaration of a national emergency to further an agenda that places at its center health-based solutions, or would it then turn around and say, we have an emergency, we need draconian legislation like sentencing laws, or crackdowns on people who use or misuse opioids?” asked Grant Smith, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “The latter would be more in line with how the administration has handled its drug policy to date, more than the former.”