President Donald Trump last week finally got around to declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency, although he did so in typical Trump fashion — seemingly off-the-cuff and reversing a statement that one of his administration officials had made just a couple of days before.
Despite all that, the final declaration (endorsing the top recommendation from a presidential commission) was welcome.
"The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I'm saying officially right now it is an emergency," Trump told reporters. "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 declined to offer specifics, and the fact is that the federal declaration is mostly bureaucratic. It will, however, free up disaster funds for communities that have been ravaged by opioids and will allow agencies to waive certain rules so that they can respond in a more timely manner.
That could be valuable. But the biggest value from the presidential declaration comes in the heightened profile it gives the opioid issue, and that's part of the reason why the presidential commission (headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) put that at the top of its list of recommendations.
"Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the executive branch even further to deal with this loss of life," the commission said in its report. "It would also awaken every American to this simple fact: If this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will."
That's well-put. Experts say the opioid crisis now kills more than 100 Americans every day. Oregon has not been spared.
Last week's events prompt some additional thoughts:
• One of the administration's announced strategies to deal with the opioid crisis is a tougher law-and-order approach. In May, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an Obama administration sentencing memo and urged federal prosecutors to seek the maximum possible sentences in drug-related crimes. The problem is, while the appeal to law and order looks good on paper, it hasn't worked all that well in practice in our war against drugs. And it doesn't do one thing to increase the treatment options available for addicts who desperately need the help.
• On a related point, it's worth noting that the efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act likely would have hindered the fight against opioids. Some of the states hardest-hit by the crisis have been able to broaden the coverage offered in substance-abuse programs, thanks to the Medicaid expansion that went hand-in-hand with the Affordable Care Act. Both the Senate and House health care bills would have cut Medicaid.
• The confusion last week as to whether Trump would declare a national emergency was understandable, considering that on Tuesday, the president called the opioid crisis a "tremendous problem," but declined to label it an emergency.
In fact, Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday that public-health emergencies tended to focus on a "specific area, a time-limited problem," and cited the examples of the Zika outbreak and Hurricane Sandy. Price went on to say that administration officials believe that "the resources that we need or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis, at this point, can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency."
Two days later, presumably at another point, Trump declared the emergency.
But Price had left himself an out. On Tuesday, he had ended his remarks with this verbal asterisk: "Although all things are on the table for the president."
If you're working for this president, those are words that you'll want to keep handy.
— Corvallis Gazette-Times