The week before last, President Trump promised to unveil a plan to battle the opioid epidemic that’s ravaging Middle America, but as he stood at the podium in Bedminster, New Jersey, last Tuesday, he disappointed treatment advocates and ignored his own commission’s recommendations. At his “major briefing” on the epidemic, Trump explained, “strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society”, promising to strengthen police response and not even mentioning the other recommendations of his own Commission. He also unequivocally rejected the call to declare a national emergency, instead focusing on enforcement.
Some had expected Trump to declare such an emergency after his opioids commission force described this move in recent days as the “first and more urgent recommendation”.
A few days later, after experiencing backlash, however, Trump changed his tune, telling reporters on the 10th of August, “We’re going to make it a national emergency. It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.” Trump then added that he was “drawing documents now” to officially label the crisis as a national emergency, which would free up federal aid to provide funds to states and agencies.
Trump’s announcement was welcomed by addiction advocates, but there is a reason to be skeptical; it’s been a full week since President Trump said he would declare an emergency, yet the paperwork he was ‘drawing up’ still hasn’t made its way to the National Register. According to the National Emergencies Act, “The proclamation of a national emergency must be immediately transmitted to Congress and published in the Federal Register.” Without the proclamation being published in this daily publication, the words “national emergency” literally mean nothing, and no money will go towards the addiction epidemic until this official step is taken. Since when do we allow a National Emergency to continue without intervention for week and months on end?
A Return to Hardline Approaches?
“We’re also working with law enforcement officers to protect innocent citizens from drug dealers that poison our communities,” Trump told reporters in early August. “Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society. “We’re also very, very tough on the southern border where much of this comes in, and we’re talking to China, where certain forms of manmade drug comes in and it is bad,” he told reporters. There was no mention of curbing on controlling legal prescription opioids.
It appears that despite expert recommendations to keep and expand Medicaid to low-income citizens seeking drug treatment and more employment of evidence-based treatment practices, the administration plans to take a hardline approach similar to the “war on drugs” of the 1990’s.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who was recently under scrutiny for his rejection of evidence-based treatment practices, insists that the federal government is “working together on a comprehensive strategy that will be available to Present Trump “shortly”. There was no mention of the White House Opioid Commission’s recommendations, and it’s unclear who is working on a strategy other than this appointed body.
No National Emergency, Price Says
When pressed about declaring a National Emergency in response to the addiction crisis in America, Price rejected it flatly. “Most national emergencies that have been declared in the area of public health emergency have been focused on a specific area, a time-limited problem – either an infectious disease or a specific threat to public health. The two most recent that come to mind are the Zika outbreak and Hurricane Sandy. So we believe that at this point, the resources that we need or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis, at this point, can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency – although all things are on the table for the president.”
Earlier this summer, addiction professionals, and advocates were furious when White House adviser Kellyanne Conway stated that people suffering from drug addiction need “a four-letter word called ‘will’ in an interview about the need for Medicaid coverage to help combat the addiction crisis.
Regardless of the mixed messages by the Trump administration on how (and if) they plan to tackle the addiction epidemic as promised during his campaign, the addiction epidemic isn’t waiting for their answers. People are dying, and people are losing loved ones every day. In 2016, it’s believed that deaths from overdoses exceeded 59,000, which is more than deaths from car crash deaths, HIV or firearms – even at their peaks. Recently experts said this number may be vastly underestimated due to the stigma of listing the cause of death as “overdose” on a death certificate. Addiction is actively killing people – and many lives are at stake as officials argue over the answers.
How States Are Fighting to Save Their Own Citizens Lives
Advocates in states across the country, as well as Governors and other local politicians, have been forced to find solutions without the aid of the federal government. Lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies have been proceeding in many hard-hit states, such as Ohio and New Hampshire, with the hopes that the outcome will help to pay for more drug treatment beds.
States have invested millions of dollars in Naloxone, to help first responders reverse the effects of overdoses. Many states have decided to make this drug available over-the-counter, and equip schools, community centers, and other public spaces with the life-saving drug.
Unfortunately, the most difficult challenge most states face is a lack of treatment beds as well as qualified professionals. When a person is revived after an overdose, they are at their most vulnerable and are often more receptive to getting help. When there’s nowhere for them to get help, however, it’s simply harder for them to get clean. To help with this, many states are recruiting volunteers in recovery to fill the gap as people wait for treatment. The good news is that there are many people in recovery willing to help others get, and stay clean.
These approaches seem to help, but it will take time. Immediate funding for recovery homes, evidence-based addiction services, and medically-supervised detox would speed up the rate at which people get help, and would save many more lives. Hopefully, the states will find more ways to fund these initiatives, while the government continues to stall on measures once promised to the hardest-hit states.
On a national level, a true declaration of a National Emergency would help states get the money they need to get more treatment beds. It’s just not clear when, or if, the Trump Administration will actually oficially declare the emergency.