President Donald Trump’s declaration of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency Thursday is a key step in curbing the problem, as it helps redirect funds and ease state laws for those fighting on the front lines, according to public health experts and medical professionals.
Trump’s announcement stopped short of calling the crisis a national emergency, which would’ve opened additional funding to fight the issue even faster. However, experts said the public health emergency declaration is a vital, long-overdue part of the battle against America’s opioid problem. It allows agencies to set priorities in tackling the epidemic and directs US Department of Health and Human Services funds to help carry out that mission.
“In practical terms, I believe this declaration of public health emergency will unify the country and our leadership in a nonpartisan way around finding solutions to this growing problem in the US,” said Dr. Halena Gazelka, an anesthesiologist who chairs the Mayo Clinic’s Opioid Stewardship Program. “As state, federal and private funds are directed at curbing the primary issues (of) supply and demand, hopefully we’ll see a rapid decrease in the overdose deaths and related health issues.”
Although the emergency declaration doesn’t change guidelines for doctors, Gazelka said she hopes the declaration will empower providers to write “only the right amount of opioid for the right patient.”
“No longer should patients be able to request and receive opioids ‘easily,’ and they should receive them only when truly warranted by medical diagnosis,” Gazelka said. “No longer should providers freely write prescriptions without care and consideration to who is truly going to use those medications and for what purpose.”
Since 2000, more than half a million people have died of drug overdoses, with opioids accounting for the majority of the deaths, according to government figures. Last year alone, more than 64,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, primarily due to opioids.
“In the last several years, US life expectancy has actually declined, not because of cardiac disease or cancer or an incurable new virus but because of opioid overdose,” Gazelka said. “This is incredibly tragic and wasteful and must be halted with that trend in life expectancy reversed.”
Lainie Rutkow, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has studied public health emergencies, said Thursday’s measure could lead to increased grant funding for states to address opioid use disorders.
“The availability of additional funds, particularly for the states, to address opioid use disorders will be critical,” Rutkow said.