White House: Trump to declare opioid crisis a public health emergency

President Trump on Thursday will instruct the acting director of the Department of Health & Human Services to declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, White House officials said.

It’s a move that won’t free up additional federal funding and is a more narrow option recommended by the president’s opioid commission.

The announcement has been months in the making and avoids declaring a more sweeping national emergency under the Stafford Act, which was one option the administration’s opioid commission had previously recommended. The commission recommended either a public health emergency or a Stafford Act emergency.

The Stafford Act “doesn’t offer authority that is helpful here,” a senior administration official said. “There has been some false reporting about this.”

A Stafford Act emergency is typically reserved for a terror attack or natural disaster, in a more localized area.

Trump will formally make the announcement during a White House event Thursday. Officials previewed the actions with the press on condition of anonymity Thursday morning.


On Aug. 10, Trump said his administration was drafting paperwork to officially declare the epidemic a national emergency, which was the “first and most urgent” recommendation in an interim report from his commission to combat the crisis.

Two months later, some advocates and lawmakers were frustrated that the declaration still hadn’t come.

At a press conference last week, Trump said he’d make the announcement this week, calling a declaration “a very important step” and saying “to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done and it’s time-consuming work.”

Administration officials said they felt that a public health emergency was a better use of resources. It will allow Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan to loosen certain regulations and issue grants and spend money that he otherwise would not be able to.

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A public health emergency needs to be renewed every 90 days until the declaration is no longer needed.

Three agencies that play a role in the federal response to the opioid epidemic have acting directors instead of Senate confirmed-leaders: the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. 

Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) — an early backer of Trump — withdrew as the ONDCP nominee last week following a Washington Post-”60 Minutes” joint investigation reporting a bill he sponsored weakened the policing of the nation’s drug laws. Marino has vigorously defended himself.

White House officials said Trump will be submitting names to lead HHS and ONDCP soon, but pointed to “obstructionists” in the Senate for slowing down confirmation of lower level agency appointees who could help implement the action.

The declaration could spark a funding feud in Washington, as some say more cash is needed to make a declaration effective. The amount of money left in the public health emergency fund is paltry — just $57,000.

Administration officials said there have been ongoing discussions with Congress about securing more money for the fund as part of the year-end spending bill, but would not discuss specific dollar amounts.