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Opioid Crisis: Still Not “Officially” a National Emergency

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A few weeks after firmly stating his intention to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, President Trump has yet to take the steps necessary to do so.

There are currently 28 active national emergencies, none of which are clearly directed at U.S. public health. National emergencies, each of which must be renewed by the President annually, are typically used to freeze the assets of foreign nationals or impose sanctions on another country. While national emergencies can be declared to address public health crises, the most direct way to do so is through the declaration of a public health emergency.

Public health emergencies are distinct from national emergencies declared by the President. Instead, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, could declare a public health emergency on his own. This would unlock a range of expanded powers for the Department of Health and Human Services, permitting the Secretary to issue grants and spend money for this purpose which he otherwise could not do. The Secretary also would be given additional freedom to direct resources and amend regulations.

Only with the swine flu outbreak in 2009 was a recent public health emergency also declared a national health emergency to the entire country. If the President chooses to formally declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, the federal government may look to states that already have implemented public health emergencies to address the opioid crisis, including Maryland, Massachusetts, Alaska, Arizona, Virginia, and Florida. These states provide a model for (1) using public health emergency declarations to implement new prescription guidelines for healthcare professionals; (2) expanding educational programs about addiction; (3) increasing access to treatment including medications for addiction treatment; and (4) broadening availability of emergency tools such as naloxone, a medication used to revive someone who has overdosed. These combined efforts can make a significant impact in saving lives.

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