WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump declared the deadliest drug crisis in U.S. history "a national public health emergency under federal law" on Thursday.
The move won’t bring new dollars to fight a scourge that kills nearly 100 Americans a day, but it will expand access to medical services in rural areas, among other changes.
“Families, communities and citizens across our country are currently dealing with the worst drug crisis in American history -- and even, if you really think about it, world history -- this is all throughout the world,” Trump said.
Opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, Trump said. He said at least 64,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2016.
Trump: “We understand the need to confront reality … that millions of our fellow citizens are already addicted … (1/2) pic.twitter.com/GkaqKcSgGG
— Abby Anstead (@AbbyAnstead) October 26, 2017
Administration officials have made clear that the declaration, which lasts for 90 days and can be renewed, comes with no dedicated dollars. But they said it will allow them to use existing money to better fight the crisis. Officials also said they would urge Congress, during end-of-the year budget negotiations, to add new cash to a public health emergency fund that Congress hasn’t replenished for years.
The Public Health Emergency Fund currently contains just $57,000, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, a negligible amount. Officials would not disclose how much they were seeking.
But critics said that wasn’t enough.
“How can you say it’s an emergency if we’re not going to put a new nickel in it?” said Dr. Joseph Parks, medical director of the nonprofit National Council for Behavioral Health, which advocates for addiction treatment providers. “As far as moving the money around,” he added, “that’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi also was critical, calling the new declaration “words without the money.”
Trump’s audience Thursday included parents who have lost children to drug overdoses, people who have struggled with addiction, and first responders whose have used overdose reversal drugs to save lives.
Trump also spoke personally about his own family’s experience with addiction: His older brother, Fred Jr., died after struggling with alcoholism. It’s the reason the president does not drink.
Trump described his brother as a “great guy, best looking guy,” with a personality “much better than mine”
“But he had a problem, he had a problem with alcohol,” the president said. “I learned because of Fred.”
Trump said he hoped a massive advertising campaign, which sounded reminiscent of the 1980s “Just Say No” campaign, might have a similar impact.
During his campaign, Trump had pledged to make fighting addiction a top priority at rallies in some of the hardest-hit states in the nation.
“When I won the New Hampshire primary, I promised the people of New Hampshire that I would stop drugs from pouring into your communities. I am now doubling-down on that promise, and can guarantee you - we will not only stop the drugs from pouring in, but we will help all of those people so seriously addicted get the assistance they need to unchain themselves,” he told a crowd in Bangor, Maine weeks before the election.
Trump’s speech comes just five months after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office filed a lawsuit against the five largest manufacturers of opiates.
In the suit, DeWine’s office alleges the drug companies “put profits above the health and well being of Ohio consumers” by “flooding the market with misleading information about the risks and benefits of prescription opioids, including OxyContin, Percocet and others.”