- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2017

President Trump doesn’t plan to declare a state of national emergency to deal with the opioid crisis just yet, administration officials said Tuesday, ignoring the White House opioid commission’s “first and most urgent” recommendation in the face of an increasingly deadly epidemic.

New data released Tuesday showed the rate of drug overdose deaths increased in the first nine months of 2016, underscoring the growing threat of the epidemic.

And Mr. Trump’s own commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, last week urged the president to declare a state of national emergency, saying “America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said a declaration remains an option, but for now the administration is content to dole out billions in grant funding, crack down on the flow of potent synthetics like fentanyl from overseas and cheer on states that cut the numbers of pain pills per prescription, among other initiatives.

“We believe, at this point, the resources that we need or focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis can be addressed without a declaration of emergency,” Mr. Price said. “But all things are on the table.”

At the same time, the White House said the U.S. is “on the losing side” of the war against crisis, which ballooned in the mid-2000s as doctors began to prescribe aggressively marketed opioids at a rapid clip.

“Opioid overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled since 1999. It’s a problem, the likes of which we have never seen,” Mr. Trump said after a briefing on the crisis alongside first lady Melania Trump, Mr. Price and top advisers at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

The crisis appears to be getting worse.

The National Center for Health Statistics said the share of overdose deaths stood at an unprecedented 19.9 per 100,000 people in the third quarter of last year, up from 16.7 in the same quarter of 2015, despite well-documented efforts to get a handle on the epidemic.

“The numbers in 2016 are no better, and the numbers in 2017 are even worse than 2016,” Mr. Price said, suggesting the early reports ahead of official data, which tend to lag by about a year, are dismal.

Federal, state and local policymakers have been trying to catch up with the problem, 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 addicted.

“The challenge of reducing opioid supplies has evolved. As access to prescription opioids tightens, consumers increasingly are turning to dangerous street opioids, heroin, fentanyl alone or combined, and mingled with cocaine or other drugs,” Mr. Trump’s commission said in its interim report last month.

Mr. Trump emphasized awareness among young people, urging them to avoid the habit in the first place.

“If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem. If they do start, it’s awfully tough to get off,” he said.

Mr. Price said the administration is doing a national listening tour and focusing on stemming opioid abuse among veterans and pregnant women who could pass along opioid-related problems to newborns.

“The president understands the magnitude of this challenge, how devastating it is, he understand the effect that it has had on our nation,” Mr. Price said.

Mr. Trump highlighted the opioid problem on the campaign trail, saying his proposed border wall with Mexico would blunt the flow of illicit drugs into the U.S.

He faced criticism earlier this year, however, for endorsing sweeping cuts to Medicaid coverage for the poor as part of GOP plans to repeal Obamacare. Some Republicans balked at the idea, saying the federal-state program offered a critical lifeline to opioid-addiction treatment.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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