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According to data from the president’s special commission, as many as 5,500 people may have died from opioids in the interim.
It has been more than 60 days since President Trump uttered these words:
“The opioid crisis is an emergency and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency.”
Many in the media took those sentences to mean a national emergency had been declared, or that one would be declared shortly. As Route Fifty has previously reported, national emergency status would give the executive branch, as well as state governments, more power and resources to address the crisis.
Under the Stafford Act, funding administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be made available to particularly hard-hit states. And, a declaration under the Public Health Services Act, would impart upon the Department of Health and Human Services greater authority to tackle the problem, as was the case during the Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico for example.
But, it takes more than just a statement from the president that an issue is an “emergency” to make it so. A formal declaration is needed and in the past, formal declarations and emergency announcements on the part of the president have occurred simultaneously.
But, two months have gone by and an official, legal declaration to that effect has yet to be made.
According to estimates from Trump’s own opioid commission, approximately 142 Americans die every day from an opioid-related overdose. If those figures are true—and it should be said that recent studies have shown that deaths are being undercounted by current data—as many as 5,500 people may have died since Trump made that address in August.
An emergency declaration was the centerpiece of the interim report from the White House commission on the epidemic, which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chairs.
“The first and most urgent recommendation of this Commission is direct and completely within your control,” the text of the report, addressed to the president, reads. “Declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”
On Tuesday, during a press conference announcing the 40 recommendations from the New Jersey Governor’s Task Force on Drug Abuse Control, Christie commented on what the Trump administration’s eight-week lag on this issue has meant.
"The problem is too big to say that if he declared an emergency two months ago, it would have made a significant difference. But I would also say you can't get those two months back," Christie told a reporter in response to a question about Trump. "So it’s not good that it hasn’t been done yet."
Christie isn’t the only official to publically wonder when, if ever, a formal declaration might be coming. In September, 10 Democratic senators, led by Sherrod Brown from Ohio and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, signed on to a letter to the president asking why such a declaration had not yet been made. At that point only four weeks had elapsed.
"[Y]our lack of action … causes us to question your commitment to ending the opioid use disorder and overdose crisis," read the letter. “Regardless of whether you choose to declare a state of emergency,” the letter adds, “continued inaction on this issue is deeply concerning.”
In September, a spokesperson for the White House told CNBC that an official declaration was being prepared.
"The President's policy advisers are working through the details with all of the relevant components and agencies," the spokesman said. "Right now these actions are undergoing a legal review."
That spokesperson refused to elaborate on what that “legal review” entails or long that review would take.
The White House didn't immediately responded to Route Fifty's inquiry on the status of the formal emergency declaration.
Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty, based in Washington, D.C..