HHS extends Trump’s emergency declaration for opioids

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The Trump administration has extended the opioid public health emergency issued by President Trump, days before that declaration was set to expire.

In October, President Trump announced in the White House’s East Room that he was declaring the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency. The move was without precedent, as such declarations had in the past been reserved for natural disasters and the outbreak of infectious diseases. 

But the emergency orders only last for 90 days, so it would have expired Tuesday. On Friday, Health and Human Services (HHS) acting Secretary Eric Hargan signed an extension for another 90 days, effective Wednesday.

“By declaring the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency, the President has used the bully pulpit to bring national attention of this critical issue to not only everyday Americans, but also Members of Congress, state and local officials, and his entire executive branch, who have the necessary tools and authorities within their agencies to address this crisis,” the White House said in a statement to The Hill. 

Some lawmakers and advocates had been calling for renewal of the order, though they differed in their reasons why.

Some argued the administration’s follow through on the public health emergency had been lackluster, and, thus, more time was needed to use any power the declaration has to combat the crisis. Others say they stand ready to work with the president to add more resources to the epidemic, allowing for an emergency declaration to hit with more force.

“While it is important for this declaration to be renewed to allow for maximum federal flexibility to combat this epidemic, cooperation with Congress to provide the necessary funding to properly support such an emergency declaration is vital,” nearly 50 members of the House’s Bipartisan Heroin Task Force wrote Friday in a letter to Trump.

“We urge you to work with Congress to advance additional funding as part of fiscal year 2018 budget negotiations as well as the inclusion of emergency supplemental funding for any continuing resolution,” they wrote.

Senate Democrats were more critical of the administration’s response.

“Unfortunately, we have seen too little action taken relative to the magnitude of the problem,” 10 Senate Democrats and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) wrote in a Jan. 12 letter to Trump. 

For years, the federal government has grappled with how to combat the skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers and heroin — rates that increased 28 percent from 2015 to 2016.

On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to work to combat the epidemic, and declaring a public health or a Stafford Act emergency was the “first and most” urgent recommendation from the commission he created to tackle the crisis.

The declaration didn’t free up millions of dollars or include a request to Congress for more money. In 2016, Congress approved $1 billion over two years to combat the opioid epidemic. Advocates and Democrats say more is needed to make the public health emergency effective. 

An HHS spokesperson said in December that the president wasn’t sending a formal request to Congress for the opioid emergency funding, but expected lawmakers to commit the “necessary resources” to combat the crisis “now and into the future.” 

Democrats have been calling for a robust infusion of federal funds into the opioid response, though Republican leaders haven’t echoed those calls. But when asked Thursday if more money could come for the opioid epidemic in a larger spending package, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — who chairs the health appropriations subcommittee — said, “I think once they get the [budget] toplines, that will happen.”

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