Trump declares opioid epidemic a public health emergency

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency on Thursday, telling an audience in the East Room of the White House that “we can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”

“This epidemic is a national health emergency,” he said. “Nobody has seen anything like what is going on now.

“As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue. It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction. Never been this way. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.”

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The move is different from the broad order Trump previewed over the past few months.

The president directed acting Health Secretary Eric Hargan to declare a public health emergency under the Public Health Services Act — which directs federal agencies to provide more grant money to combat the epidemic — not a national emergency through the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

The difference between the two orders is money and scope.

If Trump had used the Stafford Act, the federal government would have been able to tap into funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund to combat opioids.

A senior administration official, however, said the designation was not the right fit because the FEMA money is meant for natural disasters, not health emergencies.

Under the Public Health Services Act designation, no additional federal funding will automatically be directed to the crisis, said an official, but federal agencies will be directed to devote more grant money already in their budget to the problem and take “action to overcome bureaucratic delays and inefficiencies in the hiring process,” according to a fact sheet on Trump’s order.

The Trump administration will work with Congress to fund the Public Health Emergency fund and to increase federal funding in year-end budget deals currently being negotiated in Congress.

Administration officials pushed back against the idea that Trump’s order is less sweeping than what he promised.

“Under the Stafford Act, as unfortunately we have seen on multiple occasions over the last several months, the Stafford Act is deigned to respond to mostly natural disasters that are (of a) very short time duration and a specific geographic region,” one official said, adding the Trump administration believed the order under the Public Health Services Act is “a better use.”

Trump’s order will last 90 days and, according to another official, can be renewed every 90 days until the president believes it is no longer needed.

Since 1999, the number of American overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled.

From 2000 to 2015, more than 500,000 people died of drug overdoses, and opioids account for the majority of those.

Recently released numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that around 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016.

Trump, after campaigning for president in part on fighting the scourge of opioid addiction, has long teased sweeping action.