The Trump administration’s top health official backed away from a presidential commission’s proposal to declare a national public health emergency to address the opioid crisis. An emergency declaration could have big implications for the Ohio Valley, a region with some of the country’s highest addiction and overdose rates.
The top recommendation from President Trump’s commission on the opioid crisis was for the president to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency.
In an interim report released last month, the commission said that such a declaration would allow the administration to take direct action and pressure Congress to provide more funding.
However, after a briefing Tuesday with the president, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price downplayed the importance of an emergency declaration.
“Much of it is being done without the declaration of a national emergency,” Price said in a press briefing in New Jersey, where the president is vacationing.
But addiction specialists in the Ohio Valley say any action being taken by the administration is not coming quickly enough.
Public Health Nurse Lisa Roberts, with the Portsmouth, Ohio, Health Department, said she believes a national emergency declaration could increase relief for rural areas struggling to keep up with the crisis.
For example, her department could use federal funding for more of the overdose reversal medication naloxone.
“There’s never been really any dedicated funding for naloxone,” she said. “Here at my health department, it’s always a struggle to come up with enough.”
Other results of the declaration could include allowing states to declare themselves disaster zones to obtain more funding, and waiving restrictions on the use of Medicaid to pay for addiction treatment in rural areas.
Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have some of the nation’s highest rates of addiction and overdose deaths due to heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and abuse of prescription opioids such as oxycodone.
The three states are also home to many of the counties that federal health officials have identified as at highest risk for outbreaks of needle-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Yet few of these rural counties have needle exchange programs, which are known to be effective in mitigating the disease risks.
Price said the president is aware of the magnitude of the opioid epidemic and that several agencies within the administration are working on a comprehensive strategy to be presented to the president “soon.”
Based at WOUB in Athens, Ohio, Aaron Payne covers economic transition and the addiction crisis for The Ohio Valley ReSource.