WASHINGTON — Following through on pledge made this summer, President Donald Trump has formally declared the nation’s growing opioid abuse epidemic as a public health emergency.
In a press conference at the White House on Thursday, the president and First Lady Melania Trump announced the action, which has drawn plaudits from public officials and pharmacy and health care industry stakeholders. Many hailed the decision in the weeks leading up to the proclamation.
More than 2 million Americans had an addiction to prescription or illicit opioids last year, and since 2000 over 300,000 have died from overdoses involving opioids, according to figures released by the White House.
“The opioid epidemic has affected more than 2 million Americans nationwide, and sadly the number continues to rise,” the First Lady said.
Drug overdoses are now the nation’s leading cause of injury death, surpassing traffic crashes and gun-related deaths. In 2015, drug overdose deaths total 52,404, and 33,091 of those involved the use of opioids.
The White House noted that the situation has grown worse, with drug overdose deaths in 2016 expected to top 64,000, a rate of 175 deaths daily.
“Families, communities and citizens across our country are currently dealing with the worst drug crisis in American history,” Trump said at the conference. “The fact is, this is a worldwide problem. This crisis of drug use, addiction and overdose deaths has been so long in the making. Addressing it will require all of our effort, and it will require us to confront the crisis in all of its very real complexity.”
In declaring the opioid abuse crisis a public health emergency, Trump enables a number of actions by the administration, including expanded access to telemedicine services, including remote prescribing of drugs commonly used for substance abuse or mental health treatment.
Bureaucratic delays and inefficiencies in hiring also will be smoothed by allowing the Department of Health and Human Services to more quickly make temporary appointments of specialists with the tools and staff needed to respond to the national health emergency, the White House said. The Department of Labor, too, can issue dislocated worker grants to help workers who have been displaced because of the opioid crisis, based on available funding.
In addition, the declaration paves the way for the administration to shift of resources in HIV/AIDS programs to help people receive substance abuse treatment, which the White House said is key given the connection between HIV transmission and substance abuse.
“By declaring a public health emergency, President Trump is taking the important step of engaging the leadership of the federal government to address this crisis, which will have a meaningful impact on millions of Americans whose lives have been touched by this tragic epidemic,” CVS Health president and chief executive officer Larry Merlo said in a statement. “The opioid epidemic has no single cause, and it doesn’t discriminate. It exists in our cities, in the suburbs and across rural America.
“Solving the opioid crisis will not be easy, and it will certainly take the concerted effort of patients, physicians, insurers, pharmacies, advocacy organizations, elected officials and community leaders to determine the best path forward,” Merlo added.
Stefano Pessina, executive vice chairman and CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., also expressed his company’s support of the President Trump’s move to designate opioid abuse as a national health emergency.
“Walgreens Boots Alliance shares the president’s deep concern over the opioid crisis, supports the declaration of a national public health emergency and is committed to working to find all potential solutions to this problem,” Pessina stated. “Serving millions of customers and patients every day in communities across America, our company understands the devastating impact and tragedy of the opioid epidemic. We embrace our ability and responsibility as a leading retail pharmacy provider on the front lines of health care to marshal our resources to help address the opioid crisis.”
Pessina continuned, “We are eager to work in collaboration with the administration and all parties to bring our commitment and resources even more to bear to address this national public health emergency.”
This week, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA) sent a letter to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, outlining several solutions that distributors and the health system can take to reverse the trend of abuse and misuse.
“We welcome the administration’s declaration of a public health emergency on opioid abuse. This is a national tragedy, and our industry supports every possible effort to reduce the use of opioids while preserving access for those in pain for whom there are limited options,” HDA president and CEO John Gray stated. “While meaningful progress has been made to address the root causes of the epidemic, including the release of new clinical guidelines that can help stem the prevalence of overprescribing, more can be done to address and prevent opioid abuse and misuse among patients and medical providers.”
Earlier in the week, McKesson Corp. chairman and CEO John Hammergren applauded the president intention to proclaim opioid abuse as a national health emergency. “McKesson supports President Trump’s indication that he intends to declare the opioid epidemic a ‘national emergency.’ This vital exercise of executive authority will provide much-needed resources to help tackle the opioid crisis in new ways and with a deepened sense of urgency,” Hammergren stated.
And in anticipation of the president’s action, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores made policy recommendations to help combat the opioid abuse dilemma in a letter on Tuesday to President Trump.
“NACDS commends you for the important work that you are pursuing to address the opioid abuse problems plaguing the country,” NACDS said in the letter. “We look forward to supporting your work in this area through the various policies and activities that we have outlined.”
In March, Trump formed the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Epidemic as a way to assess U.S. drug addiction and abuse and determine actions that the federal government could take. The commission is slated to release its final report at its next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 1.
Editor’s Note: Article updated with executive comment.