President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency, but provided no new funds to confront this problem nor took media questions during a press briefing in the White House East Room Thursday.
“This epidemic is a public health emergency,” Trump said. “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”
The room applauded with Trump speaking before officials from his administration, including National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, Food and Drug Administration Director Scott Gottlieb and Special Counsel Kellyanne Conway, members of Congress, including Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, and people who have lost loved ones to opioid use or who are strengthening their communities, including Rebecca Crowder from Lily’s Place, a clinic in Huntington, West Virginia that weans infants during opioid withdrawal that First Lady Melania Trump recently visited. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who chairs a commission the president established to study the opioid crisis, also attended.
The president stressed that solving this crisis required shared national responsibility and that the federal government was combating opioids “on all fronts.”
He took no questions from the press about why he chose this strategy to stem the epidemic.
“We are committed to taking additional steps under the new declaration of a public health emergency to more forcefully confront this immense national tragedy,” Gottlieb said in a statement.
But the president’s action met pushback, primarily because the White House’s decision to declare this crisis as a public health emergency does not summon new funding. George Benjamin, executive director for the American Public Health Association said in a released statement that the president’s strategy “comes up short.”
“Without an aggressive, comprehensive plan and significant boost in funding to prevent overdoses, assist addiction recovery and prevent new addictions, the declaration will fall far short of our country’s needs,” he said.
Leana Wen, public health commissioner for Baltimore, Maryland, and a vocal advocate for expanded resources to expand addiction treatment and reduce stigma, asked in a statement why the administration offered no new funds with this declaration.
“Imagine if there were hundreds of people dying from a natural disaster or from a disease such as Ebola every day—there would be no question that a declaration should take place that would have the full force of the federal government, including funding and resources, behind it,” Wen said.
According to senior administration officials early Thursday, the declaration would expand telemedicine access, which is critical in rural areas, allow federal and state workers to be deployed to hard-hit communities and offer help to displaced workers.
This public health emergency announcement lasts 90 days and can be extended as needed. Officials said the Trump administration is negotiating with Congress to provide additional funding.
The announcement came more than two months after his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis made its “first and most urgent recommendation” that Trump put the full weight of his office behind efforts to stop this public health epidemic in an interim report, which said an estimated 142 Americans die daily, amounting to the same death toll as September 11, 2001, every three weeks. And in 2016, 64,000 people died of drug overdose, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The president had signaled multiple times that he would make this announcement, including once in August when he said opioid use amounted to a national emergency, but he never signed any formal declaration, The New York Times reported. And more than a week ago during a Rose Garden press briefing with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at his side, Trump said he would make a big announcement on the issue.
The next day, Trump’s drug czar nominee, Rep. Tom Marino, a Republican from Pennsylvania, withdrew his name to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy following reports from the Washington Post and CBS News “60 Minutes” that he guided a 2016 law that hindered the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to stop illicit substances, including opioids, from flowing into the country. The DEA’s acting chief Chuck Rosenberg resigned, and Health and Human Services Director Tom Price resigned after reports revealed that he used taxpayer dollars to fly private air travel.
The bipartisan commission, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is scheduled to release its final report by Nov. 1.
PBS NewsHour will update this story as it develops.