BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Even with the opioid crisis intensifying and more than 142 Americans dying of drug overdoses each day, President Trump is not yet ready to declare a national emergency, as was recommended last week by a commission he organized.
Instead, the president met Tuesday afternoon with health officials and members of his administration to receive an update on the crisis and to briefly address reporters. He said the “best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place.”
“If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem. If they do start, it’s awfully tough to get off,” Trump told reporters at the clubhouse at his private golf club. “So if we can keep them from going on — and maybe by talking to youth and telling them: ‘No good, really bad for you in every way.’ But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price later told reporters that declaring a national emergency is a step usually reserved for “a time-limited problem,” like the Zika outbreak or problems caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Declaring a state of emergency allows the government to quickly lift restrictions or waive rules so that states and local governments don’t have to wait to take action. Price said that the administration can do the same sorts of things without declaring an emergency, although he said Trump is keeping the option on the table.
“The president certainly believes that it is, that we will treat it as an emergency — and it is an emergency,” Price said during a news briefing held about eight miles from Trump’s golf club, where he is on a 17-day working vacation. “When you have the capacity of Yankee stadium or Dodger stadium dying every single year in this nation, that’s a crisis that has to be given incredible attention, and the president is giving it that attention.”
During his campaign, Trump promised that he would swiftly end the crisis by building a wall along the southern U.S. border to stop the flow of heroin into the country, boosting funding for recovery programs and approaching the problem with a humanitarian mind-set instead of a law-and-order one. In November’s election, Trump overperformed the most in counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates, according to a Pennsylvania State University study.
Now, more than 200 days into his presidency, activists say the president has done little to help.
Republicans in Congress have proposed cutting Medicaid in ways that health-care advocates say would reduce access to drug treatment for many, and the president’s budget proposal calls for reducing funding for addiction treatment, research and prevention efforts. Several Republican lawmakers who did not vote for their party’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act this summer said that the legislation would make it more difficult for their states to combat the heroin epidemic.
In March, Trump established the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which is led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). The group was charged with studying “ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction and the opioid crisis.”
Last week, the commission issued a preliminary report that described the overdose death toll as “September 11th every three weeks” and urged the president to immediately “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”
Doing so would allow the administration to remove some barriers and waive some federal rules, such as one that restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment. It would also put pressure on Congress to provide more funding. But some worry that such a declaration would also expand the powers of the president and attorney general in a way that could allow abuse of law enforcement authority.
The report said that 142 Americans were dying every day of drug overdoses, based on 2015 statistics — but new federal data released early Tuesday signaled that the average daily toll is up significantly.
Christie said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he has received a “really good response from the White House” on the recommendations.
“We urge the president to take these steps,” Christie said. “He’s taking this commission seriously, as we are. And we make some very aggressive recommendations. And I’m confident he will adopt them.”
A White House spokesman said Tuesday morning that the “administration is still completing the review process of the recently submitted interim report.”
The preliminary report also calls for expanded access to drug treatment for Medicaid recipients, increased use of medication-assisted treatments, development of non-opioid pain relievers, wider use of a drug that can reverse an opiate overdose and more protections for people who report a drug overdose to first responders or law enforcement officials.
The report makes no mention of building a wall along the southern border or some of the tough-on-crime measures pushed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, including expanding the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes and seizing more cash and property from individuals suspected of drug crimes.
The opioid crisis has been building for years. Prescription overdose deaths began to rise more than a decade ago, following aggressive marketing and widespread prescribing of the drugs that started in the late 1990s. When authorities began cracking down on prescription opioid abuse, increasing the street price of such drugs, some users turned to illicit street drugs such as heroin, which is sometimes mixed with powerful synthetic opiates such as fentanyl, making it even more deadly.
In 2015, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with an additional 20,000 dying from other drugs, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. And deaths from drug overdoses rose sharply in the first nine months of 2016, the government reported Tuesday. The rate of overdose deaths increased every three months last year, reaching a record 19.9 per 100,000 people in the third quarter, up from 16.7 for the same three months in 2015. Data for the last three months of 2016 or this year is not yet available.
Since his election, Trump has continued talking about the opioid crisis and making broad promises. In his inaugural address, Trump said drugs “have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” vowing that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
In a January phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a transcript of which was obtained by The Washington Post earlier this month, Trump bragged that he won New Hampshire because the state “is a drug-infested den,” a problem that he blamed on “drug lords in Mexico.” New Hampshire had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation in 2015, according to the CDC.
During a campaign rally last week in West Virginia, which had the nation’s highest rate of deaths in 2015, Trump promised that “we are going to solve that problem.” In a tweet Tuesday morning, Trump called the opioid crisis “a major problem for our country.”
Wagner reported from Washington. Lenny Bernstein and Christopher Ingraham in Washington contributed to this report.