President Trump threw the public for a loop again on Thursday when he announced his administration was moving to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, just two days after administration officials said they weren’t going to take such a step.

Emergency declarations can carry both symbolic weight and serious policy consequences. Here are four things STAT will be keeping an eye on.

When will the declaration be issued, and what will it say?

First, it’s unclear when the declaration will be formally issued. Trump has a habit of announcing policies via tweets or, as he did Thursday, in response to a question from reporters. But enacting policies requires bureaucratic follow-up, and in statements issued after Trump’s remarks, neither the White House nor Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price indicated just when an emergency would go into effect.


Trump said Thursday his administration was working on the paperwork to make the declaration official; what that says will be key. There are several laws that allow the president or the health and human services secretary to issue a declaration, and they each outline different pathways for assistance and appoint different officials to lead the initiatives. HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency could play roles, depending on which law is invoked.

Under the laws, the president also needs to spell out which authorities his administration is going to leverage during the emergency period, including whether there are certain rules — like Medicaid and Medicare regulations — that will be relaxed as part of the response.

How do you measure success?

Trump’s announcement came in response to an “urgent” recommendation from his commission on combatting the opioid epidemic to declare a national emergency. But in interviews over the past two weeks, experts on emergency and disaster declarations have all admitted this is uncharted territory — they’re not entirely sure how an emergency announcement will apply to a crisis like the opioid epidemic.

In the past, declarations have been issued to respond to a natural disaster when state and local resources get overwhelmed, or to stop the spread of an infectious disease. In those cases, it is clear when the emergencies end: when the affected region is cleaned up to a certain point, or when the outbreak of a disease ebbs. The emergencies generally last a few months, at most.

The opioid epidemic, however, is not expected to dissipate for years. Does that mean the emergency declaration will be in effect for years, or will the White House say from the start how officials will know when to end it?

Some advocates have even expressed concern that the Trump administration could use its emergency powers to push for a law enforcement crackdown on people who use drugs, instead of following through on the commission’s recommendations, such as expanding access to treatment and incentivizing the use of medication-assisted treatment. Trump has made clear that he sees the criminal justice system — whether through increased police enforcement or harsh sentences — as a critical tool in tackling the crisis.

Will this inspire other action?

Both the commission and outside experts have argued that, even absent additional measures, a national emergency is in itself a public awareness campaign and rallying cry. (Some experts have also questioned whether the public really needs any further reminder that the opioid epidemic is a historic crisis, given how profoundly it has affected much of the country.)

Advocates have also said that a declaration is just that — bluntly, some official-sounding words on a piece of paper — unless it is accompanied by further action. They hope the announcement could inspire Congress and federal agencies to bolster their responses, even if it’s with authorities they already have.

Through laws like the 21st Century Cures Act and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, Congress has appropriated new resources and started new programs to fight the opioid epidemic. But the resources available are a tiny fraction of what it would actually cost to provide enough treatment to completely meet demand, experts have said. Lawmakers of both parties have generally been supportive of Trump’s announcement, so perhaps it will encourage them to take additional action on their own.

Another example: As one of its top recommendations, Trump’s opioid commission identified changing Medicaid rules so that the program would pay for care at facilities with more than 16 beds. (The fact that such a bed limit exists dates back decades to when health officials didn’t want federal Medicaid dollars going to state psychiatric hospitals.) But reworking Medicaid law to get rid of the limit would require congressional action. To get around that, federal health officials have been offering “waivers” to states for several years to expand payments to facilities with more than 16 beds, and at least four states have received them. Will the emergency declaration motivate more states to apply for waivers, or motivate Congress to change the law itself?

The first lady factor

First lady Melania Trump attended the opioid briefing with administration officials Tuesday, and the crisis is reportedly going to be part of her policy platform. It’s worth watching how she plays a role in the response, and the approach she takes.

She will reportedly be working on the issue with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who has traveled with Price on an opioid “listening tour” and has been seen as sensitive to some of the key, if often underestimated, factors driving the crisis, such as the stigma that still remains against addiction.

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  • I want to thank you in advance, to whom reads my reason. Thank you
    This American Disabled Veteran was diagnosed with acute lumbar strain with sciatic nerve root irritation and degenerative disc disease at age 20. I am almost 60.
    I’m an American Disabled Veteran who been using the Veteran Administration Compensation Money to pay out of pocket for Service Connected Disability for many years, including surgery. Over those years, I’ve paid more than $36,000.
    I’m being treated with opiates for my chronic pain after having one surgery performed by private doctor. The V.A. never wanted to perform surgery when the pain I suffered with gotten much worse than in the past. Therefore a surgeon outside the V.A. back surgery was performed 05/2009. The private doctor I’ve been seeing, has been prescribing opiates medication. Which from the time I been prescribed those medications I could say that I own the pain. I cannot say this anymore, since having knowledge my L4-L5 disc is now much smaller.
    The pain I am not experiencing is caused by pinched nerves in my lower back. This will make for a simple decision for me to end my medical problem with a permanent solution. My solution should be my decision, and not the doctors. The just unfair decisions “meaning lack of much needed medical attention” from the V.A. should be the MAIN focus for my actions. My private doctor has reduced my medications, also making this decision easier. If my next visit the medications get less than those 2/3 already reduced. I have few options!
    1. Help the black market by buying medications illegally
    2. Find heroin and become a user, again illegal
    3. Life not worth living is not worth suffering anymore!
    I’ve said many times on the Veteran Crisis Line, if there is no other medical procedure to make my life worth living. I’ve only use opiates for pain and pain only. I consider this a short term solution, until I have the medical procedure that would have me using less medication or none at all. I been home bound since these pinched nerves were discovered 12/2015 to present date 10/2017. Now that this would be bring sorrow to my family that the decision is to take place soon. They need to understand that the pain will be gone and I will be much better off. I’ve given the V.A. ample opportunities to help this veteran. But they still offer no solution. Therefore please don’t let my solution be the main focus of prevention. The V.A. should be the focus of why they didn’t offer me other alternatives!
    Thank you and best regards to you and yours, Robert

  • This is dangerous policy for ppl who have real chronic or acute conditions requiring these types of pain meds. It should be left up to the doctors (straight doctors and not pill-mill, cash-in-hand doctors) to determine what each patient needs on a case-by-case basis.
    I live in FL and when I moved here I had no idea this state supplied the country w 80% of opioid meds. This is a result of pill-mill docs who will give anyone w a MRI (regardless of what is shown on it) and cash. They see patients abt every 10 to 15 minutes charging abt $100. Add up how much these quacks make to get ppl addicted to the pt that when that doctor finally loses his license and many of them move to heroine. These doctors, which many say are backed by the mob, corrupt government officials getting kick-backs and others w their hands in the pot, should face jail-time in addition to just losing their medical license (and still keeping their illegally-made money).
    What happens when you get the government creating mandates and rules for prescribing is those who really need it are treated poorly–they too are treated as drug addicts–and it becomes difficult and for some impossible to get medication they need to live a semi-tolerable quality of life. For those w no insurance, it easily costs $800 to $1,600 for 90 pills. Their constitutional rts have been taken away by having to sign a three-page list that allows for illegal search and seizure, for mandatory urine tests to prove the patient is taking their meds and not selling it and to have their medical history made available to anyone institution that asks to see it despite HIPPA laws.
    It’s the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies that are the responsible parties for the influx of opioid use. All that happens to these doctors is they lose their license after many years of being in an obvious pill-mill business and the pharmaceutical companies companies just get richer. Going after the users, be it those who got hooked by their doctors or patients who truly need those meds are having the blame put on them–the victims and the innocent. And as what always happens, governmental laws become extreme and for those who are sick, they need care and help, not 20 questions, indignity and personal-rights violations.
    Finally, ppl who have temporary or acute need for these meds are also scrutinized and far less of these meds that needed to help them recover.

  • Yes , let’s indeed see if FLOTUS can be a warrior Mom given her ( non) activities in fighting cyber bullying seems to be a complete failure! Maybe this “cause” will be a better choice?!?!?

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