WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday declared the country’s opioid crisis a national emergency, saying the epidemic exceeds anything he has seen with other drugs.
The statement by the president came in response to a question as he spoke to reporters outside a national security briefing at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is on vacation.
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis,” he said.
Last week, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis issued a preliminary report that described the overdose death toll as “September 11th every three weeks” and urged the president to declare a national emergency.
Trump received an extended briefing on the subject Tuesday in Bedminster. White House aides said Trump is not yet ready to announce which of its recommendations he will embrace.
The declaration should allow the administration to remove some bureaucratic barriers and waive some federal rules governing how states and localities respond to the drug epidemic. One such rule restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment.
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“There’s no doubt that this shines a brighter light on the epidemic. It remains to be seen how much this will fundamentally change its course,” said Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness. “No one thinks the recovery from this is going to be fast, emergency or not.”
The emergency declaration may allow the government to deploy the equivalent of its medical cavalry, the U.S. Public Health Service, a uniformed service of physicians and other staffers that can target places with little medical care or drug treatment, said Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He said the Drug Enforcement Administration might be able to use the emergency to require prescriber education for those who dispense opioids.
“It could be very helpful, much more than just symbolic,” he said.
There are an estimated 2.6 million opioid addicts in the United States. The report issued last week states: “The opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled. The average American would likely be shocked to know that drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined.”
The commission based its estimate of the number of fatal drug overdoses on 2015 statistics, when 52,404 people died of overdoses of all drugs, including opioids, for an average of 142 a day. But new federal data covering the first nine months of 2016 showed that the death toll could reach 60,000 once the numbers are all in.
In Thursday’s briefing, Trump said, “It is a serious problem, the likes of which we’ve never had. You know, when I was growing up, they had the LSD, and they had certain generations of drugs. There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years.”
Opioids are a broad category of legal and illegal drugs, ranging from prescription painkillers to heroin. In the past couple of years, according to the DEA, much of the street-level heroin in the United States has been laced with illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is much cheaper to produce than heroin.
The current opioid crisis has its origin in the 1990s, when the pharmaceutical industry marketed new formulations of prescription opioids. Soon they flooded the market, making the United States by far the world’s leading consumer of such painkillers.
Ohio lawmakers — regardless of party — expressed nearly universal applause for Trump’s decision.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who spent Thursday morning touring a Chillicothe drug-treatment facility and who last year successfully pushed for a bill to address the problem, said, “There is no doubt that this heroin and prescription drug epidemic is a crisis affecting our entire country.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he hopes the designation will spur the administration to work quickly to address the epidemic. “Communities across Ohio don’t need a declaration to tell them the opioid crisis is an emergency,” he said.
Brown said a key element of the emergency declaration is the apparent elimination of a 16-bed cap for residential substance-abuse and mental-health treatment facilities that can be covered under Medicaid. Brown and Portman had sponsored legislation to lift the cap.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, applauded Trump but said: “This is not a problem we as a country are going to be able to arrest, incarcerate or legislate our way out of. We all have to be in this effort together.”
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, also said “the key is what we do moving forward to address the issue.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, was the lone critic, saying he was “alarmed at what appears to be a dangerously uncoordinated response to the emergency unfolding in front of our eyes.”
Information from Dispatch Reporter Jessica Wehrman was included in this story
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