President declares opioid epidemic a public health emergency

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On October 26, President Trump directed Acting U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Eric Hargan to declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency under the Public Health Service Act. The administration’s long-planned declaration followed through on a recommendation put forth by the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Epidemic, but stopped short of committing new federal funds to the epidemic.  

Under the Public Health Service Act, a public health emergency declaration enables the HHS secretary to waive certain administrative regulations around treatment resources and allow states greater flexibility in using federal dollars to combat a public health crisis. A public health emergency declaration lasts for 90 days and can be renewed by the HHS secretary. There are currently 13 localized public health emergencies in effect in response to recent hurricanes and the California wildfires.

Although it is narrower in scope than a wider federal emergency declaration, the White House’s public health emergency declaration is expected to facilitate the following actions:

  • Allow patients to obtain medically-assisted treatment via telemedicine, which could make treatment more accessible for individuals in remote areas;
  • Provide state and federal agencies greater flexibility in hiring substance abuse specialists;
  • Expand eligibility for U.S. Department of Labor Dislocated Worker Grants to include people with opioid addiction; and
  • Issue guidance on healthcare privacy laws that currently prevent medical providers from sharing medical information with the families of overdose victims.

In addition to the above action items, HHS will also be empowered to tap into funds available through the congressionally-established Public Health Emergency Fund. The fund’s reserves currently total approximately $57,000. The president’s opioid commission plans to release its final slate of policy recommendations on November 1.

The nation’s worsening opioid epidemic has become a leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. NACo will continue to work with Congress and the administration to ensure counties have the resources they require to respond to this urgent public health issue.

For more NACo resources on opioids, please see the following: 

NACo and NLC Joint Report: A Prescription for Action: Local Leadership in Ending the Opioid Crisis

County News: Trump spotlights opioid epidemic

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