WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency Thursday, ordering his administration to act in addressing addiction and opioid misuse, though not providing government agencies with additional financial resources for the matter.
The declaration, which will last 90 days with the option to be extended, will allow agencies to redirect resources and make temporary appointments to expand treatment services.
Trump said at the White House East Room the current drug crisis is the worst in the nation’s history.
“It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge of drug addiction,” he said in front of families impacted by addiction. “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.”
According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 64,000 people died in 2016 from drug overdose, almost double from 2006.
The CDC reports West Virginia as having the highest drug overdose rate in 2015 at 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people. The centers also reported 12.5 million people misused prescription drugs that year.
“We are going to overcome addiction in America,” Trump said. “We have fought and won many battles and many wars before, and we will win again.”
The declaration directs federal agencies to take action in addressing excessive use of opioids and other drugs. The Department of Health and Human Services will be allowed to hire temporary appointments to respond to the issue, and telemedicine services will be expanded, such as remote prescriptions for treating addiction.
Trump said the Justice Department is going after those who distribute opioids, and he is looking at filing lawsuits against “bad actors,” but he did not go into detail about who that could mean. He also said his administration will be running an advertising campaign to discourage people from drug use.
Thursday’s action comes short of declaring the matter a national emergency, which was one option recommended by the president’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in July and would allow for additional funding. The commission did recommend a public health emergency declaration as well.
Trump first said in August he would make a national emergency declaration. He also mentioned making that decree during an Oct. 16 press conference. He told Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs on Wednesday he would declare a national emergency next week on drugs.
The secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services will be also to access appropriations from the Public Health Emergency Fund, which currently only has $57,000.
West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bill Crouch said in a press release he hoped the president would have resulted in additional resources for the state.
“Any additional resources that could be directed toward this fight are critically important in our efforts to slow the progression of a problem that is devastating so many families and communities in West Virginia,” he added.
But U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said Congress can appropriate the needed resources to state, and this was one of the first steps the Trump administration is taking on the matter.
“I think it enlists a whole nationwide response to say we’ve got to stop this,” she said. “Not just for health reasons, but for the corrosive nature of drug in and around families.”
Capito, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., and West Virginia House of Delegates Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, were at the White House Thursday for Trump’s announcement.
She said the president made it clear he is taking drug addiction seriously, and Congress will support his efforts.
“I don’t know what more he would have said in declaring it a national emergency,” she said. “In my view, a national public health emergency rises to the same level.”
Jenkins said as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he has passed several bills to set aside more than $1 billion of new funding for the opioid crisis.
“The president today focused on an important step in the process: cutting through regulatory red tape, cutting through burdensome problems and regulations that limit getting help to real people real quick,” he said.
Prior to the president’s speech, First Lady Melania Trump spoke briefly about the issue and noted her Oct. 10 trip to Lily’s Place, a Huntington facility that treats babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
“By placing the priority of the whole family, Lily’s Place is giving infants the best opportunity to strive because their parents are given the support and tools they need to succeed,” the first lady said.
Jenkins, who helped in opening the facility in October 2014, said he was touched by Melania Trump’s comments.
“To have that as the center piece of the first lady’s remarks today, it shows that we in West Virginia do have things that we are proud of that are getting national recognition that are drawing attention to the good work we are doing,” he said.
Lily’s Place executive director Rebecca Crowder was at the White House, as was Cece and Bobby Brown, the parents of Ryan Brown, of Charleston, who died of a heroin overdose in April 2014.
Manchin said in a press release President Donald Trump’s move will benefit rural states like West Virginia.
“This public health crisis declaration will give states like West Virginia the flexibility to enlist help from federal agencies and resources to combat this epidemic,” he said.
Yet West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said while Trump’s action is a step in the right direction, more work needs to be done to address drug addiction.
“The President’s action recognizes the seriousness of opioid abuse,” he said in a statement. “It also exemplifies the need for all branches and levels of government to pull together to tackle this terrible epidemic.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is chair of Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, said in a statement he “commended” the president’s declaration. The commission is expected to release a full report on drug addiction and the opioid epidemic on Nov. 1.