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Opioid Crisis: Does A 'Public Health Emergency' Go Far Enough?


The Trump administration says that the president today is going to declare the nation's opioid crisis a public health emergency. This action follows through on a recommendation a White House commission made back in August, but it ignores most of the commission's other recommendations for tackling head-on the opioid epidemic. Let's talk this through with NPR's Greg Allen, who's been following the story. Hi there, Greg.


GREENE: So one of the concerns being expressed is that declaring a public health emergency, as we're expecting from the president today, is not going to go far enough. As you've been talking to experts and advocates, what are they saying?

ALLEN: Well, people, I think, are very disappointed in this. I think part of the reason is that this has been building for so long. This started over the summer when the commission, the president's commission recommended this action, and they did mention public health emergency, but they recommended a lot of other things, too. This plan basically ticks the box of a public health emergency but does very little beyond that. As one person said to me, this is really not a plan, especially because there's no new money entailed in this. And that's the key issue. If there's not any money being spent to help combat the opioid crisis then what are we going to accomplish?

GREENE: No new money. And that sounds very important to note because a lot of people are expecting different language, some sort of national emergency that would have new revenue. So if this falls short, what does the White House say it is going to accomplish with this decision?

ALLEN: Well, the White House says that they will talk to Congress about the budget and they will include more money. They'll see about including money for opioid treatment in the budget. But as one advocate pointed out to me, there's already a $400 million cut in the budget for the federal agency that actually deals with opioid abuse. So if they want to spend money, they could have put it in their budget already. That might be coming. They say - the administration also says they're doing a lot on opioids already. They talked about that a lot.

But this public health emergency does offer some new guidance, some new powers. One thing it will do, allow the administration to use - doctors can use telemedicine to prescribe drugs, medications for people who are trying to get off drugs. It does a few other things. Allows them to work on staffing, and it redirects some money from some other programs to allow to be used in addiction services. But that's fairly limited, and that falls short of what many people were looking for.

GREENE: OK. So it's sort of cutting through some of the logistical hurdles to help people get treatment moving money around, but it sounds like the bottom line is that the president would need to actually work with Congress to get a lot more money if this was going to meet the expectations that some people were hoping for.

ALLEN: That's right. And if he declared a national emergency, it would give him powers to do a lot of this on his own. There were so many things that the president's commission asked for that are not in here. They wanted to expand the number of beds for treatment. This does nothing along those lines. They wanted waivers for Medicaid so more people could get get treatment. They wanted to have a fund set up for medically assisted treatment for people with addiction services. So a lot of these things that they are all calling for, most of them are not in here at all, just that basic thing of a public health emergency.

GREENE: OK. I'm speaking to NPR's Greg Allen about an announcement we're expecting from the president today declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency, which falls short of what many people were hoping for and expecting, but that the White House says will actually improve treatment around the country. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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