What Would Happen If Trump Declared the Opioid Epidemic a National Emergency?

National-emergency laws were designed to help America deal with hurricanes. Will they work against addiction?
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President Donald Trump shakes hands with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during a meeting about opioid and drug abuse on March 29th, 2017.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during a meeting about opioid and drug abuse on March 29th, 2017.

A White House-created panel urged President Donald Trump to declare opioid overdoses a national emergency on Monday. "We need to have the executive branch, their departments, and the Congress completely focused on this issue as the national emergency that it is," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also chair of the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, said during a public teleconference that unveiled the commission's nine recommendations for immediate action on drug use in America. "We believe it's the most important single recommendation that's made."

In the meantime, other federal agencies are working on projects aimed at catching drug traffickers and funding addiction treatment. Several states have already declared their own emergencies over opioids. So what would a declared national emergency accomplish? To find out, Pacific Standard asked lawyer and University of Michigan health-policy researcher Rebecca Haffajee, who pointed to a few possibilities.

1. It Could Tap Special Emergency Funds

Christie's commission suggested Trump use either the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act or the Public Health Service Act to declare this emergency. If he used the Stafford Act, that would give him access to the national Disaster Relief Fund, which holds $1.2 million as of July 6th. If Trump wanted to use the Public Health Service Act, he would have to direct Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to declare the emergency, which would then free the Public Health Emergency Fund. But the public health emergency pot only has $57,000 in it as of July 1st.

2. It Could Help More Poor Americans Get Their Addiction-Treatment Medicines Covered by Insurance—Temporarily

During public-health emergencies, officials are allowed to relax laws around taxpayer-funded health insurance, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Officials could use that provision to make sure addiction treatment and naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug, are covered for more Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP enrollees.

3. It Could Help the Government Get Drug Data Faster

Public-health emergencies also allow officials to temporarily circumvent the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act's privacy rules. This might help officials more quickly get data on where people are overdosing and dying, so they can send resources there.

Rebecca Haffajee.

Rebecca Haffajee.

Some questions remain about what would happen if Trump declared this national emergency. How long would it last? How would we tell when the emergency was over? National-emergency laws were designed to help the country respond to short-term, acute disasters, like hurricanes and infectious-disease outbreaks, Haffajee explains. But the consequences of opioid addiction will take years to play out, scientists warn. Doctors consider substance use disorders to be chronic conditions, like diabetes or heart disease. Most people with addictions relapse several times before recovery sticks, if it ever does. Many of the estimated 2.6 million Americans addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin won't get better this year, or next. But keeping a national public-health emergency on opioids open for months on end could deplete the country's emergency funds.

Still, so long as Trump or Price decided beforehand clear criteria for when the emergency would be over, Haffajee thinks a declaration could be a good idea. "Just given the amount of overdoses that we're seeing and the supply source that has really significantly changed as of the last couple years [to be more dangerous]," she says. "It's no question it's an acute, dire situation." 

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