No Need to Declare National Opioid Emergency, HHS Sec Says

August 08, 2017

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, MD, today said the Trump administration could effectively battle opioid abuse without declaring it an official national emergency, a step recommended by a White House commission on the epidemic.

In a news conference following a briefing with President Donald J. Trump on the subject, Dr Price said the president "is absolutely committed to solving that problem" and treating it as an emergency. However, "we believe at this point that the resources we need or the focus we need to bring to bear on the opioid crisis can be addressed without a declaration of emergency, but all things are on the table for the president," Dr Price said.

He noted that national emergencies declared by previous administrations involved "time-limited problems or specific threats to public health." Examples include the Zika virus and Hurricane Sandy.

Dr Price's comments run counter to what the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis said in an interim report released on July 31. The commission urged the president to declare the opioid abuse epidemic a national emergency under the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act. This was its "first and most urgent recommendation" in the face of 142 Americans dying each day from overdoses, which over 3 weeks would equal the death toll of the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to the commission.

Declaring a national emergency would empower the cabinet to act boldly, pressure Congress to focus on funding the administration's efforts, and awaken the public, the commission said. "You, Mr President, are the only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe you have the will to do so and to do so immediately."

One member of the commission did not appear ruffled by the Trump administration's pass — so far — on declaring a national emergency.

"All that matters is whether timely and considered recommendations can and will reverse this calamitous trend," said commission member Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. "Nomenclature will not solve this complex problem."

Dr Madras told Medscape Medical News in an email that each point made in today's press briefing was embodied in the commission's interim report. "The President and Secretary Price are deeply committed to reducing the problem and are fully aware that timely implementation of sound and effective policies is the next phase," she said.

The opioid commission is headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican.

Roughly 52,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2015, with opioids accounting for 33,000, Dr Price said today. "The numbers in 2016 are no better and the numbers in 2017 are even worse.

"The president understands the magnitude of this challenge."

Before his briefing with Dr Price at the Trump National Golf Club in
Bedminster, New Jersey, the president said his administration would get the opioid abuse epidemic "taken care of as well as it can be taken care of.

"We've got a tremendous team of experts and people that want to beat this horrible situation that's happened to our country — and we will," he said. "We will win. We have no alternative."

Follow Robert Lowes on Twitter @LowesRobert

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