Opioid Crisis State of Emergency Declared: What Does It Mean?

By Britni de la Cretaz 08/11/17

A national state of emergency has never been declared for a non-infectious medical condition...until now?

President Donald Trump

Just a couple of weeks ago, a White House commission, headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, provided the Trump administration with recommendations on how to proceed in terms of addressing the opioid epidemic. One of the major recommendations from the commission was to declare a national state of emergency in response to the opioid crisis.  

On the heels of the opioid commission's recommendations, both Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stated on Tuesday that the current administration would more than likely not declare a state of emergency.

Trump called for more drug prosecutions, longer prison sentences for drug offenses and an emphasis on drug prevention. "The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place," Trump stated. "If they don't start, they won't have a problem. If they do start, it's awfully tough to get off."

While Price said, “We believe at this point that the resources 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.”

But on Thursday it appeared the tables had turned when Trump made the following announcement to the press, "I'm saying officially right now, it is an emergency. It is a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis."

Public health officials told Vox that it’s unclear whether declaring a state of emergency could actually help, noting that such declarations are usually reserved for immediate, short-term events like natural disasters.

Lainie Rutkow of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Vox that a national state of emergency might jumpstart solutions and access to help. “In many ways, [declaring an emergency is] a communication tool to express how severe a particular threat is,” Rutkow told Vox. 

The opioid commission's report touched on the impact of declaring a state of emergency: “Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the executive branch even further to deal with this loss of life. It would also awaken every American to this simple fact: If this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”

Essentially, the declaration will lead to more funding for tools to resolve the crisis, which means expanded treatment access, and give the government more leeway to bend certain rules and regulations in order to get to a faster resolution.  

NPR notes, however, that the administration has not formally declared a national state of emergency, a "process that comes with specific legal authority and brings specific sets of powers and access to money."

The government is able to declare a state of emergency under the Stafford Act or the Public Health Service Act. The Stafford Act requires a declaration from the president, while the Public Health Service Act requires a declaration from the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Stafford Act would provide access to resources usually reserved for natural disasters and immediate crises, while the Public Health Service Act would allow access to more resources on the medical side of things. 

But as Rutkow told Vox, “No one can point you to the exact model for how this would work for an emergency that’s been declared for a non-communicable health condition. This is a new thing.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.