President Donald Trump declared a national public health emergency Thursday to deal with the nation’s opioid crisis. The announcement elevated the administration’s response to the crisis — but it stopped short of declaring the opioid epidemic a national emergency. What difference do the types of emergency declarations make?
It all comes down to funding. National public health emergency declarations are made under the Public Health Service Act of 1944. That type of declaration gives agencies more flexibility to use existing federal funds and regulations to tackle the crisis at hand — but it doesn’t create new funding.
Trump’s announcement Thursday directed Department of Health and Human Services Acting Director Eric Hargan to use existing health-specific resources — such as opening access to telemedicine, deploying federal and state employees to overwhelmed communities, and HIV-AIDS funds — to target opioids.
Trump administration officials also said before the president’s announcement that they would continue to haggle with Congress to divert more money during end-of-year budget negotiations to stem opioid use, overdose and deaths.
In contrast, the federal government responds differently when a president declares a “major disaster” or “emergency” under the Stafford Act.
That type of declaration frees up more federal resources to respond to a crisis, including allowing the government to tap into the Disaster Relief Fund, which had roughly $3.3 billion on hand as of Sept. 30. It’s also viewed as a longer-term solution, because the funding is more open-ended, and can continue to flow for years.
National public health emergency declarations, on the other hand, only last 90 days — though they can be renewed for as many additional 90-day periods as necessary. For example, a public health emergency issued in August 2016 following the Zika virus outbreak in Puerto Rico has been renewed three times since.
The Trump administration has issued other public health emergencies this year, including after the California wildfires, and to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Nate on the Gulf Coast, and the devastation Hurricane Maria created in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
If Trump had declared a national emergency for the opioid crisis under the Stafford Act, it also would likely have been easier for Congress to appropriate new funding to fight the epidemic. Congress approved $3.3 billion in disaster relief funds, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as wildfires that have swept the western United States.
But according to a White House official, the Trump administration decided such a declaration was more appropriate for natural disasters, not the opioid crisis.
The decision went against a blue-ribbon panel’s recommendation earlier this year. On July 31, the president’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released its interim report, in which the “first and most urgent” recommendation was that Trump declare opioid use a national emergency.