Editor's note: This story has been updated to include reactions from government officials and healthcare industry leaders.
Just two days after a top White House official said the United States has the resources it to address the opioid problem without declaring a state of emergency, President Donald Trump now says the deadly opioid epidemic is indeed a national emergency.
Trump said he is drafting documents to make the official declaration, which will provide states and federal agencies with more resources and power to combat the epidemic.
"The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I am 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,” Trump told reporters at his Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Two days ago, Trump rejected calls from a White House commission to declare the crisis a national emergency. Instead, Tom Price, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that the government is already doing work on the recommendations made by the commission without declaring it a national emergency.
Price said at the time that the president is well aware of the magnitude of the problem. “He is absolutely committed to turn this scourge in the right direction,” Price said.
In a statement released yesterday, the White House said that "building upon the recommendations in the interim report from the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, President Donald J. Trump has instructed his Administration to use all appropriate emergency and other authorities to respond to the crisis caused by the opioid epidemic."
Price also issued a statement, saying the president is taking “strong, decisive action” but not commenting on the change in the administration’s stance.
“Today’s announcement demonstrates our sense of urgency to fight the scourge of addiction that is affecting all corners of this country,” he said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions put out a statement in which he called Trump’s declaration a “drastic and necessary measure” to confront the opioid crisis. He reiterated that the Department of Justice has created a new Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit and will continue “to use every tool we have to combat this deadly disease.”
A White House commission, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, issued a report last week in which its top recommendation was for the president to issue an emergency declaration. It will be up to Trump to issue the details of such a declaration and spell out what resources will be made available.
It wasn’t clear what had caused the president’s abrupt reversal, but some Democrats had criticized him for not taking the step and said despite campaign promises he was doing little to address the crisis.
In a statement yesterday, Christie thanked the president for accepting the commission recommendation.
“It is a national emergency and the president has confirmed that through his words and actions today, and he deserves great credit for doing so. As I have said before, I am completely confident that the president will address this problem aggressively and do all he can to alleviate the suffering and loss of scores of families in every corner of our country,” he wrote, adding the country sees approximately 142 deaths a day from drug overdoses.
Former congressman Patrick Kennedy, who also serves on the commission and has struggled with his own addictions, said on Twitter that the declaration was an “important first step.”
A call for action
Others, however, said they want the Trump administration to take action beyond a declaration.
“Words need to be accompanied by actions. After 200 days into the Trump Administration, we have yet to see a clear and consistent strategy emerge,” said Daniel Raymond, of the Harm Reduction Coalition, a group that advocates for the health of those impacted by drug use.
The coalition issued a five point response, saying any “meaningful” emergency declaration must include steps such as reversing course on efforts to cut or dismantle Medicaid, rejecting “tough on crime posturing,” and talking about border security as a means to end the crisis.
Other groups that advocate for a public health-centered approach to the epidemic echoed those concerns.
“We need to be cautious about the intentions of this administration,” Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Washington Post. “An emergency declaration can be used for good. It can help free up federal resources, help prioritize responses by the federal [government], help give the administration leverage to request legislation from Congress.”
On the other hand, it could be used to further the administration's law enforcement approach.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has become a national face for the need to combat the epidemic after the July 29 death of her only son who died from a combination of drugs that included opioids. She said Trump’s declaration was a positive step, but also called for more action.
"I hope that President Trump’s words declaring this a national emergency will be followed swiftly by resources flowing into our communities to expand the number of treatment beds, while also giving first responders across the United States access to potentially life-saving anti-overdose medication,” she told The Tennessean.
The epidemic is having a cost on an overmatched healthcare system. The cost of treating opioid overdose victims in hospital intensive care units jumped 58% in a seven-year span, according to a new study (PDF) led by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
The study found that between 2009 and 2015, the average cost of care per opioid admission increased from $58,500 to $92,400 in 162 academic hospitals.