- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2017

President Trump directed his administration Thursday to treat the opioid epidemic as a national emergency, following through on his own commission’s advice just days after his health secretary suggested the president didn’t need additional powers to fight the scourge of heroin and prescription painkiller abuse.

In a one-sentence release, the White House said Mr. Trump “has instructed his Administration to use all appropriate emergency and other authorities to respond to the crisis caused by the opioid epidemic.”

Declaring a national emergency was the “first and most urgent” recommendation in the interim report issued last month by Mr. Trump’s commission on opioid addiction, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price this week said Mr. Trump had the tools he needed to fight the problem without a declaration, though the president signaled a turnabout earlier Thursday.

“We’re going to draw it up and we’re going to make it a national emergency,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.”

It’s unclear how, exactly, the fight against rampant addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin would change under an emergency declaration.

The shift could be largely symbolic, focusing new attention on the problem, though it also might free the White House to direct additional funding to hard-hit areas or waive certain rules around federal programs to attack the problem more swiftly.

Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, praised Mr. Trump’s intent to declare the problem an emergency, as the senator champions legislation to block dangerous opioid synthetics like fentanyl from entering the U.S. through mail packages, particularly from China.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from hard-hit New Hampshire, said she looks forward to hearing more details about the plan and urged Mr. Trump to give up plans to pare back Medicaid insurance for the poor, which is considered by many to be a critical lifeline to treatment.

The program faced sweeping cuts in the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget and its push to repeal Obamacare.

Federal, state and local policymakers have been scrambling to catch up with the opioid epidemic, which affects all ages and races in every corner of the U.S. They have increased access to treatment and overdose-reversing drugs like naloxone, while encouraging doctors to find other ways to treat pain, since many opioid addicts start out on prescription drugs before turning to illicit sources.

But even as doctors prescribe fewer pain pills, the number of heroin-related deaths is rising, particularly as fentanyl seeps into the heroin supply and claims the lives of people who are already hooked.

Opioid-related overdoses claimed more than 30,000 lives in 2015, and the rate of fatal overdoses increased in the first nine months of 2016, suggesting the problem is getting worse.

Mr. Trump didn’t outline any specific plans in his comments to reporters Thursday, though he suggested that opioid use is a “worldwide problem, not just a United States problem.”

He also said the country has grappled with drug problems before, such as a wave of LSD and other drugs when he was growing up.

“There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years,” he said.

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