Former Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Eric Hargan and the Trump administration made the right call to renew the public health emergency declaration on opioid misuse and addiction. Since Oct. 26, the day of the initial declaration, 4,140 people have died from opioid overdoses and 90,000 have been treated in hospital emergency departments for opioid misuse.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that U.S. life expectancy declined for the second year in a row, largely driven by increases in opioid overdose deaths. In addition, Pennsylvania and South Carolina joined six other states by declaring public health emergencies, marshaling state leadership and resources to address this epidemic.
Since the initial declaration, we have seen only a few congressional hearings reiterating how bad the problem is. Not one new dollar has been appropriated by Congress since the emergency was declared, nor has the White House requested one.
In fact, the only new dollars to follow the declaration have been the president’s own third-quarter salary donated to HHS to raise awareness about addiction. Platitudes alone will not transform the president’s “really tough, really big” intentions into the concrete measures our country needs to confront an epidemic that claims more lives each day.
Real federal action and investments are needed now following the renewal. The White House and Congress should work together to develop a proposal to increase funding for treatment, recovery, and prevention, as well as address the recommendations issued by the president’s opioid commission.
Specifically, we have requested $1 billion in emergency supplemental funding for Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and state and territorial health departments to address the opioid epidemic.
If granted, this funding will spur critical activities to scale up public health interventions and programs including, but not limited to, strengthening the nation’s public health surveillance systems and expanding partnerships and collaboration with law enforcement.
The renewed declaration should also dispatch more federal resources to states and local agencies working on the frontlines to combat this crisis. That is what is needed to stem the tide of addiction and counter surging overdose deaths — less talk, more action.
If the opioid crisis were an infectious disease outbreak emergency, federal leaders would be working 24/7 at the highest levels in a coordinated fashion to support state and local efforts to stop the contagion and prevent further spread.
A major focus of Pennsylvania’s declaration is on coordination. The state plans to run an opioid command center out of its emergency management agency, bringing a dedicated group together each week to monitor progress on the initiatives authorized through the declaration.
South Carolina is also looking to an emergency management infrastructure most commonly utilized during natural disasters to harness the expertise of state and federal law enforcement agencies, state health and regulatory agencies, health-care treatment providers, and other stakeholders to comprehensively address this public health crisis.
To those who have lost loved ones and those working hard to recover, the opioid epidemic is truly an emergency. But unlike other epidemics, there is no pill or vaccine to prevent it or stop the consequences of addiction. Nevertheless, we should make every effort to stop this pervasive threat to the health and safety of our communities, as we would any other communicable disease.
Extending the emergency declaration gives us yet another opportunity to push our elected officials to implement real changes and progress in treatment, recovery, and prevention activities. The time to debate what declaring an emergency means has passed. It is time for action.
Michael R. Fraser, Ph.D is the executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (AASTHO) in Arlington, VA.