Last week, in what was advertised as a landmark speech, President Trump announced his plans to declare the national opioid epidemic a national public health emergency. He declared that “it is time to liberate our communities from the scourge of addiction.” However, is the Trump administration doing enough to fight this epidemic?
The statistics present an overwhelmingly grim picture of our nation’s dependence on opioids. According to the White House[i], in 2016, more than two million Americans had an addiction to prescription or illicit opioids. Since 2000, 300,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses, and 52,404 died in 2015 alone. It is estimated that overdose deaths in 2016 exceeded 64,000 - a rate of 175 deaths a day This startling statistic is more than the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War. Needless to say, we have a problem and something needs to be done.
Don’t get me wrong, the actions of the Trump administration are a good start. The public health emergency designation will mobilize each department within the administration to use its available resources to fight the epidemic. As a result, this action will expand access to telemedicine services, and allow the Department of Health and Human Services to easily appoint specialists needed to respond to the public health emergency. The action also allows the Department of Labor to issue dislocated worker grants to workers who have been affected by the opioid crisis, as well as shifts resources within the HIV/AIDS programs to help those eligible for those programs receive substance abuse treatment.
Many have praised the President for officially bringing attention to the opioid crisis and placing the full force of the federal government behind fighting this epidemic. However, the epidemic needs more than just a good start. In order to fight the opioid crisis, we need a full on attack, and that is where the President’s plans fall short.
President Trump could have declared the crisis a full-on national emergency, which would have immediately freed up billions of dollars for emergency response, addiction treatment, and efforts to curtail the illegal distribution of opioids across the U.S. This more comprehensive approach (recommended by the President’s own opioids commission) would mimic the response efforts during natural disasters, and put more money where the President’s mouth is[ii]. Currently, the public health emergency designation does little to provide funding to adequately respond to the crisis. In fact, Forbes recently reported that the declaration sets aside a mere $57,000 for response efforts[iii].
Trump also announced that the administration would produce “really big, really great advertising” aimed at promoting awareness of the epidemic and the harmful effects of opioids to the younger generations, reminiscent of the Reagan-era “Just Say No” programs. The President is on to something – the fact that it will take a culture change to truly fight this epidemic. Advertising is an effective way to bring about this change (think the ban on cigarette commercials), but it must be done right. Today, such a campaign would need to be conducted with empathy and care, and not the harsh “doom and gloom” we typically prescribe for addicts.
It is unclear who in President Trump’s administration would lead the response to the epidemic. The President was forced to withdraw his nominee for head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Representative Tom Marino, after it broke that Marino had helped drug wholesalers collude against the DEA. In addition,Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to step down because of his use of private jets.
The most success so far in the fight against the opioid epidemic seems to be coming at the state level. In Alabama, state leaders such as Attorney General Steve Marshall and Governor Kay Ivey have done an excellent job in curtailing the effects of the crisis in a state that has one of the highest opioid prescription rates in the nation. Marshall has joined several other state attorneys general to investigate the sale and marketing of opioids by wholesalers, while Ivey’s opioid council is expected to present solutions to the epidemic in the forms of legislation, policy, and community action
America’s opioid epidemic must be stopped before it spins hopelessly out of control – if it hasn’t already. While President Trump’s public health emergency declaration was a good start, it falls short of the increased funding, strong leadership, and a change in culture that are truly needed to combat this crisis. Governor Chris Christie, chairman of the President’s opioids commission recently said, “I still have not seen the passion for this epidemic that I saw in the AIDS epidemic.” Until that passion is evident from the President down to the smallest community leaders, this epidemic will continue to wreak havoc on America.
This article was co-written by Daniel Bruce and Chris Reid. Daniel is studying Political Science and Economics at Auburn University. Chris is a general practice attorney in Birmingham, and a regular guest host on the Scott Beason Show, a conservative radio show in Alabama. He also contributes to his own column on Newsmax.