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Trump calls for new action, not new money, to tackle opioid crisis

President Trump on Thursday declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and announced several initiatives to reduce the nation's overdose problem. But critics said these actions don’t go far enough and that more funding is needed. William Brangham reports, then Judy Woodruff gets reaction from Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, whose state is among the hardest hit by the crisis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From President Trump today, a summons to battle opioid addiction. He called for new action, but not necessarily for new money.

    William Brangham begins our coverage.

  • President Donald Trump:

    As you all know from personal experience, families, communities and citizens across our country are currently dealing with the worst drug crisis in American history and even, if you really think about it, world history.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump, flanked by survivors, first-responders and family members impacted by opioids, declared a public health emergency.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This epidemic is national health emergency. Unlike many of us, we have seen and we have seen in our lifetimes, nobody has seen anybody like what is going on now. As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue. It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge of drug addiction. Never been this way. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.

  • William Brangham:

    The president spoke at length of the severity of this crisis, which claimed the lives of at least 64,000 people last year, has stretched the ability of first-responders and filled treatment centers to capacity nationwide.

    But the president also told a more personal story, about his own brother Fred, who died after his struggle with alcoholism.

  • President Donald Trump:

    But he really helped me. I had somebody that guided me. And he had a very, very, very tough life because of alcohol, believe me, very, very tough, tough life. He was a strong guy. But it was a tough, tough thing that he was going through, but I learned because of Fred. I learned.

  • William Brangham:

    The administration today announced several initiatives. The prescription drug Opana will be removed from the market because it's considered too dangerous.

    A key regulation will be changed to expand access to treatment facilities. They will allow grants from the Labor Department and money for HIV/AIDS care to be used in this fight. And officials will be able to tap the Public Health Emergency Fund, even though that fund has less than $60,000 in it.

    No new money has been allotted by today's action. Many say the president's declaration of a public health emergency is important, but they note that it falls short of a more sweeping state of national emergency, which would give the government far more flexibility to respond to the epidemic.

    The president's own commission on this crisis, chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, had urged that more comprehensive declaration earlier this year. Christie today was still very supportive of the president's action.

  • Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J.:

    What the president did today was historic and it is an extraordinary beginning set of steps to dealing with this problem.

  • William Brangham:

    Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that without more robust funding, today's action is simply not enough.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Minority Leader:

    Declaring an emergency means he can have access to some funds, but the funds in that account are like $57,000, $58,000, so show me the money.

  • William Brangham:

    Today's declaration lasts for just 90 days, but can be renewed indefinitely by the president.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The state of Rhode Island has been especially hard hit by this epidemic and has one of the highest overdose fatality rates in the country.

    Gina Raimondo is the governor and a Democrat. And she joins me now from Providence.

    Governor, welcome to the program. Thank you.

    What does it mean to you that the president has declared this a public health emergency?

  • Gov. Gina Raimondo, D-R.I.:

    Well, good afternoon, Judy. Good to talk to you.

    This is a public health emergency. It's a public health emergency here in Rhode Island. Since I have been governor, I have done two executive orders on the matter. And it is certainly probably the biggest public health crisis we face in America.

    So, we can't do enough. People are dying every day because of overdose deaths. I'm sick and tired of going to funerals in my state of my friends' kids, family members of people who I know. Every day almost, I hear a story of this. And we have to do more.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is your understanding of what can happen now as a result of this being declared a public health emergency that couldn't be done before?

  • Gov. Gina Raimondo:

    You know, this has just come out, so it's little too soon to say.

    What I will say, though, is to me it seems like too little too late. This has been an emergency for some time. What we really need is resources, Judy. We know what works. We have to do prevention and we have to get folks into treatment.

    And so what the president should be doing if he really did care about these lives is sending finances and funding to us on a local level so that we can get folks into treatment. We know what works. Like, here in Rhode Island, for example, we have been using our Medicaid expansion dollars to provide medical assisted treatment to folks in prison, so they don't overdose and die when they come out.

    It works. It's saving lives. But if the president were serious about treating this like a crisis that it is, he would have acted sooner, and at this point he would be providing some budget behind this priority, because that's what we need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, at the White House, officials are telling reporters that this is going to put them in a position to urge the Congress to put more fun into this so-called Public Health Emergency Fund, which they would point out has not been funded by the Congress for years.

  • Gov. Gina Raimondo:

    And that would be a good step. That would be a good step, although, again, I would say we're past baby steps on this.

    I mean, in a small state of Rhode Island, hundreds of people die every year because of overdose. And these are people in every zip code, of every socioeconomic status in every neighborhood. Young people, kids in their 20s, are dying, and it could be prevented.

    So I would say we need more money for prevention, more money for mental health. We don't have nearly enough mental health facilities. And more money for medical-assisted treatment. And I don't think we can wait. It's time for action. People deserve action.

    In the past two weeks, I have gone to three funerals related to this. Enough is enough. We're doing everything we can, and the president needs to do everything he knows how to do to save lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the president, I think, went out of his way today to say that this is something that matters deeply to him personally. He spoke about his own brother who died of — having been diagnosed with alcoholism.

    The president sounded like he's very determined to keep the focus on this.

  • Gov. Gina Raimondo:

    Well, talk is one thing, but let's see action.

    You know, as I said, people are still unable to get access to mental health services, either because they can't afford it, they don't have insurance, or there's not enough capacity in the system.

    He mentioned today, for example, going after cheap fentanyl coming in from China. Take action on that. Fentanyl is killing our kids every day. It's coming in from China and Mexico. So, let's see some real enforcement.

    And, again, just — I'm just imploring him, put politics aside, imploring the Congress, put politics aside, do the right thing, give the states not just flexibility. Give us the finances that this country has, so we can save lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And time matters here?

  • Gov. Gina Raimondo:

    Time absolutely matters. Every day we wait, people lose their lives. That is about the size of it. So let's get to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Governor Gina Raimondo of the state of Rhode Island, thank you very much.

  • Gov. Gina Raimondo:

    Thank you.

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