U.S President Donald Trump holds a signed presidential memorandum to declare the nation's opioid crises a public health emergency during an event in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Trump issues limited emergency declaration to combat the opioid epidemic

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to take on the deadly opioid epidemic, directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday to declare a limited 90-day public health emergency in response to the crisis.

But despite his sweeping rhetoric about the human toll of drug use, the president stopped short of declaring a broader national emergency and will not make any additional federal money available to confront a crisis that last year killed more than 64,000 Americans.

Senior administration officials say they hope Congress will provide more funding in a spending bill later this year, though officials would not say how much money the White House is seeking.

“We cannot allow this to continue,” Trump said in a lengthy address at the White House. “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. Let’s do it.”

Trump has been under pressure for months to step up the federal government’s response to the drug epidemic and has been promising since the summer that he would declare an emergency, a technical step that can free up funding and loosen regulations.

The new order will allow some limited new steps, such as allowing patients in rural parts of the country to access medication for addiction treatment through telemedicine, administration officials said.

The order also should allow federal agencies to move around some existing grant money to focus on opioid-addicted patients.

Despite rising public alarm about the epidemic, the unmet need for treatment remains enormous, with just 1 in 10 addicted Americans getting specialty treatment, according to the U.S. surgeon general.

And although Congress appropriated some additional funding last year, most state leaders, public health officials and addiction specialists say much more is needed.

“We certainly agree that it is a health emergency, and anything that highlights the problem is helpful,” said Dr. Joe Parks, medical director at the National Council for Behavioral Health. “If we want to take care of this epidemic, we need more health insurance coverage, not less.”

At the same time, the Trump administration has worked for most of the year to roll back the Affordable Care Act, which has helped many states on the front line of the epidemic expand treatment for patients with substance abuse disorder.

Republican plans to repeal the 2010 law, often called Obamacare, would have cut hundreds of billions of dollars of federal health care aid to these states and others.

It remains unclear what impact Trump’s new order will have on the crisis.

Even as the president expressed a commitment to more steps, his administration has pushed unprecedented cuts in federal aid to states for their Medicaid programs. Medicaid has emerged as one of the most important tools in combating the crisis.

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