Trump holds off declaring a 'national emergency' for opioid epidemic

First lady Melania Trump listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on the opioid crisis, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Members of the Trump administration told reporters on Tuesday that Donald Trump will not be declaring a national health emergency in response to the growing opioid and heroin overdose epidemic, a recommendation made last week by the president's commission on opioid addiction.

Trump addressed the opioid crisis in brief remarks to reporters on Tuesday at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf resort, expressing his confidence that with the help of health care and law enforcement experts "we will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win."

The president announced the meeting earlier on Tuesday on Twitter and sat down with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Richard Baum.

"The president understands the magnitude of this challenge, how devastating it is," Secretary Price told reporters after the meeting, but he would not be declaring a national health crisis at this time.

"We believe that at this point, that the resources that we need, or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis at this point can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency," Price explained. "But all things are on the table for the president."

The announcement came just one week after the White House opioid commission released an interim report calling on the president to "declare a national emergency" in response to the national opioid overdose rates upwards of 30,000 and addiction rates in the millions.

Price noted that the president will be kept up to date on the comprehensive strategy that the opioid commission is currently working on. The final report is expected to be released on October 21.

The declaration under the Public Health Service Act or under the Stafford Act would give Secretary Price broad emergency powers to mobilize funds and resources to help state and local government address the crisis, its cause, treatment and prevention.

Trump 's early morning tweet announcing "a major briefing on the Opioid crisis" created some anticipation that he might act on his commission's recommendation to declare an emergency. Based on the president's tweets, the meeting appeared to be a response to a media report on a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showing the human toll of the opioid crisis is even greater than previously estimated.

The study revealed that overdose deaths from opioids and heroin have been underestimated by 24 percent and 22 percent respectively nationwide.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated the number of opioid-related overdose deaths were around 30,000 in 2015. This study corrects that data by analyzing death certificates from around the country.

Already, the White House commission has reported that an estimated 142 people die from drug overdose every day in the United States, or more than 50,000 people every year.

While national underestimates were significant, the study's author, Dr. Christopher J. Ruhm of the University of Virginia, noted that underestimates at the state level were even more dramatic.

In Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Mississippi the numbers of opioid and heroin overdose deaths were more than 100 percent higher than reported. New Jersey and Alabama also considerably understated both heroin and opioid overdose rates.

In part, the under-reporting is the result of complexities in determining the cause of death, and different reporting standards for coroners and medical examiners.

Though South Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Connecticut, Florida and Kentucky overstated the numbers of opioid-related deaths, the national data points to a drug poisoning epidemic more severe than earlier estimates.

"Having accurate information is the first step to combating a problem as serious as the fatal drug epidemic," Ruhm told Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Mapped out, the new data reveals concentrations of the most at-risk populations. It also provides a tool to better understand the root causes of the epidemic, Ruhm noted, and why the effects are more severe in some areas and not others.

"It is important to (at least somewhat) target our scarce financial resources aimed at combating the problem to the areas with the biggest problems," Ruhm continued. "Until now we have not fully understood which areas these are."

In a recent interview with Sinclair, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, John P. Walters emphasized the need for accurate real-time mapping and data to address the opioid threat. The current lack of information, according to the former drug czar, represents "an unacceptable level of ignorance for a deadly epidemic."

The Trump administration has enlisted support from outside organizations to address the opioid epidemic. Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president and CEO of the Addiction Policy Forum, testified before the opioid commission in June and presented the panel with a set of 63 different recommendations.

For Nickel, the revised mortality estimates have not changed the underlying fact that the epidemic is getting worse. "Whatever the number is, it's horrific and it's hurting families and communities nationwide," she said.

The steps taken by the Trump administration so far show signs of much-needed incremental progress, Nickel observed. In recent years, Congress has passed laws to increase resources for addiction prevention, treatment and intervention, like the 2016 Care and Addiction Recovery Act (CARA) and the 21st Century Cures Act, which passed in late December.

These new pieces of legislation and the recommendations included in the White House commission on drug addiction are steps the Addiction Policy Forum applaud and have advocated for. "We need to make sure that we don't stop that pressure in advancing forward," she added.

The fight against the opioid epidemic is one of the rare issues in Congress with strong bipartisan support. Kellyanne Conway noted on Tuesday that with every state affected and no demographic group untouched by the addiction crisis, "this is a nonpartisan issue in search of bipartisan solutions."

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.) is the vice chairman of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, a group of 85 members of both parties focused on tackling the epidemic. On Tuesday, he emphasized the important role Congress has to play in supporting community groups, local governments and law enforcement in undertaking "the Herculean challenge" of addressing the crisis.

"There are few issues more pressing in our own neighborhoods than the devastation caused by the growing epidemic of opioid and drug abuse," he added.

The congressional Heroin Task Force has already put together a full slate of legislation aimed at all aspects of the crisis from interdicting deadly synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, to lifting a Medicaid restriction to provide greater access to inpatient treatment.

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