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Trump declares opioid crisis a public health emergency, but it falls short of what he promised

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‘As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue’

Participants in Groups, a drug treatment program in Aurora, Indiana, receive a drug test before a weekly group meeting.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Today, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency — a move intended to expand access to treatment and loosen regulations to fight an ongoing epidemic of drug overdoses.

The declaration, however, doesn’t unlock significant new funding, and likely won’t be enough to solve an opioid crisis that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. “My guess is that the states are going to feel like the resources that become available from today’s declaration, especially financial resources, are not necessarily enough to address the challenges that they’re facing,” says Lainie Rutkow, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The declaration also falls short of what Trump had promised two months ago.

In August, the president announced that he intended to declare a national emergency on the opioid crisis, but then didn’t take official action. A national emergency declaration (different from a public health emergency) would have quickly freed up federal money from the Disaster Relief Fund for states and cities to treat addiction and overdoses. That money is usually used to help states respond to natural disasters, not long-term public health crises. And the funds are “nearly exhausted” after a sweep of powerful hurricanes brought destruction to Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico this summer, according to Reuters. So this week, the White House decided that declaring a public health emergency instead of a national emergency would be more appropriate, according to NPR. A public health emergency doesn’t give access to the Disaster Relief Fund; instead, it frees up money from the Public Health Emergency Fund, but that fund only contains $57,000, according to STAT.

The number of Americans dying of an overdose involving opioids has quadrupled since 1999, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses, most of them from opioids. And the number of overdose deaths keep climbing. The opioid crisis is so bad that it’s driving down life expectancy in the US.

“This epidemic is a national health emergency,” President Trump said at a meeting today. “As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue. It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction, never been this way. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.”

Trump announced a few steps the administration will be taking to fight the opioid crisis: a new policy, for instance, will waive a rule that prevents states from providing care at certain treatment facilities with more than 16 beds for those suffering from drug addiction. The administration will also require federally employed prescribers to receive special training, in an effort to reduce the number of pain killers prescribed to patients. The government will also spearhead a “massive advertising campaign” aimed at discouraging people, especially children, from picking up drugs in the first place.

The National Institutes of Health will be instructed to begin a new partnership with pharmaceutical companies to develop non-addictive painkillers, Trump said, although he didn’t specify how much money will be invested in the search for new addiction and overdose treatments. “I will be pushing the concept of non-addictive painkillers very very hard,” Trump said. “We’re going to be spending lots of money on coming up with a non-addictive solution.” Finally, Trump repeated his pledge to build a border wall with Mexico, which he claims will stop the flow of illegal drugs into the US, but experts don’t agree with him.

Today’s declaration is just the beginning: experts estimate that tens of billions of dollars are needed to truly solve the opioid epidemic in the US. And for all that money to be made available, Congress will have to step in. The Trump administration plans to work with Congress to set aside funding in a year-end spending package, according to The New York Times. But in the meantime, it’s likely that individual states will declare their own emergencies to redirect their own state-level funds to combating opioid use disorders, Rutkow tells The Verge. Six states, from Alaska to Florida to Virginia to Maryland, have already declared their own public health emergencies.

Lawmakers are also trying to stir action: this week, a group of Democrats called on the president to allow the government to negotiate lower prices for naloxone. The cost of the life-saving drug has skyrocketed in the past few years, with a naloxone injector costing $4,500, up from $690 in 2014. Making sure medications like naloxone are more accessible, and more affordable, is one of the first steps that should be taken to address the opioid crisis, says Rutkow.

For now, the public health emergency designation will last only 90 days, according to CNN, but it could be extended afterward as needed.