President Trump declares national emergency over opioid epidemic

President Donald Trump on Thursday declared the nation’s opioid epidemic a national emergency, potentially freeing up federal help for communities battling the deadliest drug crisis in the nation’s history.

“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis,” he said.

“It is a serious problem, the likes of which we’ve never had,” Trump said. “You know, when I was growing up, they had the LSD, and they had certain generations of drugs. There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years.”

What the declaration could mean for the nation or Palm Beach County, known as America’s “rehab capital,” is unknown. Trump was not specific during an impromptu news conference Thursday, saying the White House is drafting official paperwork after he was briefed by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Just Tuesday, Trump pledged support to end the epidemic after an initial report by his opioids commission called for declaring a national emergency but the president didn’t go that far.

“The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place,” he told the media Tuesday. “Maybe by talking to youth and telling them, ‘No good; really bad for you’ in every way. But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem.”

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who has taken the lead on the issue since the daughter of one of her aides died of an overdose in 2016, said she’s “cautiously optimistic” that the declaration will result in help for addicts.

“I know earlier this week his focus seemed to be more on the law enforcement side,” she said Thursday evening, on her way to ride with firefighters who have been inundated with overdose calls.

The scale of the crisis, which has been building for well over a decade, is such that a presidential declaration may not have much immediate impact. But it should allow the administration to remove some bureaucratic barriers and waive some federal rules governing how states and localities respond to the drug epidemic. One such rule restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment.

“It’s symbolic mostly and it actually involves a lot of reporting and paperwork,” Richard Frank, a professor of health economics at Harvard Medical School, said earlier this week when asked about the importance of a presidential declaration.

Governors in Arizona, Florida, Maryland and Virginia have already declared emergencies. And in recent months the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Congress, physician groups and the insurance industry have all taken institutional steps to address the crisis.

The emergency declaration means the government can deploy the equivalent of its medical cavalry, the U.S. Public Health Service, a uniformed service of physicians and other staffers that can target places with little medical care or drug treatment, said Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He said the DEA might be able to use the emergency to require prescriber education for doctors and others who dispense opioids.

John Lehman, president of the Florida Association for Recovery Residences, a Boca Raton-based nonprofit that certifies sober homes, said it would provide “desperately needed resources to reverse the tide.”

“We appreciate President Trump’s support of consumers and families seeking governmental action to address the opioid pandemic,” Lehman said.

Palm Beach County has been especially hard hit by the opioid epidemic, driven in part by addicts from the Northeast and Midwest moving here for treatment. The widespread corruption in the drug treatment industry hasn’t helped, with unscrupulous facilities concerned more about lining their pockets with insurance money than helping their addicted patients recover.

Last year, 590 people overdosed and died on opioids, which include prescription painkillers, heroin and the especially potent drug fentanyl. This year, the rate is 20 percent higher than 2016, with 311 fatal overdoses in the first five months.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the rising numbers, Trump’s declaration punctuates a year that has seen a wave of action by local and state leaders.

The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Sober Homes Task Force spent half a year coming up with legislative reforms, many of which were adopted.

The task force also has arrested 30 owners and operators of drug treatment centers and sober homes. Federal prosecutors have shut down two notorious drug treatment center owners, Eric Snyder and Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman, whose stories were first detailed in The Palm Beach Post.

And earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and extended it another 60 days, letting Florida quickly draw from a two-year, $54 million federal grant awarded in April to provide prevention, treatment and recovery-support services.

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

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