White House Declares Opioid Crisis Is Public Health Emergency. Now What?

Image courtesy of Chris Wilson

It’s pretty clear to anyone who has been paying attention that the opioid abuse epidemic in America has reached emergency status. But it’s one thing for people to casually use that term and another for the White House to actually declare a “Public Health Emergency.” Here’s why.

There’s more than one kind of “Emergency,” when it comes to federal guidelines, and what kind of “Emergency” the White House calls some urgent catastrophe has significant implications for the kind of funding and federal attention it receives.

The White House will later today be declaring the opioid crisis a Public Health Emergency, Politico and others report.

The President doesn’t actually get to do the declaring; technically, Trump will be directing the Department of Health and Human Services, led by Acting Secretary Eric Hargan since Tom Price’s resignation, to declare the Emergency.

The Public Health Emergency declaration still increases resources directed toward combatting the opioid overdose and addiction crisis, but does so differently than a National Emergency would.

What Is A Public Health Emergency?

A Public Health Emergency, at its most basic, allows government agencies to design and implement plans for reallocating resources and starting programs designed to mitigate the crisis.

As Stat explains, this particular emergency declaration has a few main components to it.

1. Telemedicine
Telemedicine — the ability to video conference your medical providers, basically — is often touted as one of the great solutions the 21st century can offer for healthcare.

The administration is expected to announce a regulatory change that would permit providers using teleconferencing to serve patience the ability to prescribe medications that are used to assist with substance abuse or mental health treatment.

The increased permissions granted to telemedicine providers would largely help residents of rural areas, who have a harder time accessing in-person care — but no word on if improving rural Americans’ access to broadband that supports telemedicine is also on deck.

2. More specialists
Helping individuals and communities combat addiction is highly specialized work. The problem is, the specialists aren’t necessarily in the same places the people are. So the declaration will allow HHS and states’ governors to appoint specialists “with the tools and talent needed to respond effectively” temporarily to positions in order to provide help where needed.

3. Jobs
The Department of Labor will be instructed to make dislocated worker grants available to folks who work in areas where the labor market has been decimated by the opioid crisis.

Basically, these grants provide money for states and localities to retrain workers and provide temporary jobs in areas where some federally-recognized disaster has created an artificially high unemployment situation.

There’s a big “but” on this, though: Labor is instructed to provide the grants “subject to available funding.” No funding? No grants.

4. Shifting priorities
The Administration also proposes to shift some resources from dedicated HIV/AIDS support programs to programs that support both HIV/AIDS and substance abuse issues, in order to address the needs of the population dealing with both.

What’s Missing?

The biggest thing not on the table right now is money.

A declaration of emergency usually makes some kind of funding available — from FEMA, at least.

But as Stat says, this entire declaration relies on an already-existing public health emergency fund that HHS says is currently worth about $57,000.

When it comes to a nationwide disaster, that’s basically nothing.

The administration said that they expect funding to show up in the eventual budget spending bill that Congress must pass by December in order to keep the government running.

But assembling that budget is going to be a fraught and complicated process, with a ridiculous number of moving parts, and it’s anyone’s guess what will actually have made it in by the end.

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