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Trump Declares Opioid Crisis a Public Health Emergency

by Countable | 11.16.17

Update

President Trump announced his plan to address the opioid crisis at the White House Thursday afternoon, reports the Washington Post, declaring it a public health emergency. The declaration will allow the waiving of some regulations and heightened flexibility for states in their apportioning of federal funds, but it does not involve the dedication of new funds to the effort.

A national public health emergency of this scope was last declared in 2009 in response to the H1N1 influenza virus. The emergency declaration will last 90 days but can be repeatedly renewed.

Details of the initiatives planned as a result of the declaration include:

  • Patients in isolated areas such as Appalachia will have greater access to opioid treatment and prescriptions via telemedicine, where examinations and diagnosis happen via video conferencing and other online sharing technologies, rather than having to see a doctor in person, as is generally required under current law.

  • The Department of Health and Human Services will speed up its hiring process to have people in place to help states in crisis.

  • The federal government will allow states to temporarily shift the use of federal grant funds to target those with opioid addictions.

  • The Department of Labor will make Dislocated Worker Grants available to those with opioid addictions and others who were dislocated by this health crisis or who have had trouble finding work because of their addiction.

The government will also spend money from the Public Health Emergency Fund, although it currently only has $57,000 in it. White House officials told the press they are working with Congress to find additional funding to address the crisis and noted the $45 billion in funding for states to address substance abuse included in the Senate's Better Care Reconciliation Act, though no specific plan has been announced. Experts suggest the effort could cost tens of billions of dollars.

If the president had made a national disaster declaration potentially billions of federal dollars could have been dedicated to the effort without effecting existing funding for other programs, but a disaster declaration presents certain problems, which Countable details below.

For the time being, local officials dealing with the epidemic on the ground are going to be able to shift money more freely from one place to another. Those that were hoping for an influx of additional federal resources to help combat the daily deaths in their communities, however, are not satisfied.

What’s the story?

President Trump caused a flurry of excitement last week when he announced that there would be a plan announced to address the opioid crisis this week. No sources in the administration have confirmed what direction that plan might take, but there are a few possible options, per Politico.

Why does it matter?

The president’s commission tasked with studying the opioid crisis and recommending a plan of action called for the declaration of a national emergency in early August. Soon after, the president himself called the crisis a national emergency and pledged to enact a plan to deal with it, "a serious problem, the likes of which we’ve never had."

So far, however, no plan has been forthcoming.

What could a plan look like, if it does get announced this week?

Under the Stafford Act the president could sign an emergency declaration, a step usually reserved for natural disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would then be able to access federal monies and waive regulations to get resources quickly to affected communities. Since several governors in affected states, who would have to request the money, have already made state disaster declarations, this might seem like the next best step.

The problem? It’s unclear whether or not such a declaration would be feasible in an ongoing crisis with no end in sight. The price tag could run into the billions and money could be drawn down for years.

Another option would be to declare a public health emergency. In that case, federal money would be dispensed through the Department of Health and Human Services. Existing new money available currently in the department’s budget, according to Politico, however, is only $57,000 — a drop in the bucket compared to the scope of the crisis.

The Health Department could utilize block grant monies, but that would involve diverting monies from existing programs.

The final option would be signing a largely symbolic order that simply directs relevant agencies to address the issue, but with no clear focus of authority or dedication of federal resources. This might prevent budget issues, but not actually make a significant difference in the trajectory of the crisis.

What do you think?

Which plan option do you think the administration should pursue? Or is there one not mentioned that you think would be the best course of action?

Tell us in the comments what you think, then use the Take Action button to tell your reps!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Eric Norris via Flickr / Creative Commons )

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