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Nationwide Public Health Emergency Declared Due to Opioid Epidemic: Does It Matter?

fentanyl symptomsThis month, Trump officially followed up on his agreement from months ago to definitively declare a nationwide public health emergency due to high rates of opiate use, abuse, addiction, and overdose. It was a long time coming – arguably, far too long – but now that it is here, can we hope that real progress will be made toward combatting the problem? 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about 144 Americans die every day due to drug overdose based on any use of substances, legal or illegal, opioid or not. Of this number, about 62 deaths per day have been attributed to the use of prescription opioids like OxyContin, Percocet, Lortab, and others, but about 90 of the 144 deaths per day were attributed to any opiate drug, from prescription painkillers to heroin to synthetic opiates.  

Clearly, rampant prescription of painkillers, lack of oversight in medical care, black market diversion of prescription drugs, and illegal production of synthetic versions of opiates like fentanyl have caused opiate use and addiction in this country to evolve from a problem to an epidemic. It is an issue that has long required the intensive focus of state and government agencies, and it might now be getting the attention it requires.  

What that means in practice, however, may be very different from what families across the country who are in crisis due to opiate addiction are hoping for.  

What We Do Know

It took a long time to get to a point where the federal government took a public and definitive stand on the needs associated with the growing opiate use and abuse problem in the US. We did not get to this point without the active participation and persistence of individuals in recovery, families who have struggled through opiate addiction, nonprofit grassroots organizations, the medical community, and the substance abuse treatment community. It is a true testament to the fact that the voices of individuals do make a difference and that persistence is key in holding government officials accountable for their commitment to serving the needs of the public.   

We also know that the declaration, in short, frees up federal funds that may have otherwise been restricted in their use to increase resources available to those who are in crisis due to addiction. This means, for example, the federal funding currently allocated specifically for the treatment or prevention of HIV/AIDS may be applied to helping people who are living with HIV/AIDS as well as addiction to connect with treatment services that speak specifically to addiction.  

We also know that no new funds will be freed up specifically to address the opiate addiction epidemic. Because Trump did not classify the problem of addiction in the same way that a similar declaration might treat a natural disaster (e.g., flood, hurricane, tornado, etc.), no new funding was automatically allocated for the purposes of addressing the opiate addiction.    

What We Do Not Know

Unfortunately, there is no specific protocol in place when it comes to a declaration of this nature. It is not as if Trump’s declaration suddenly triggered a domino effect of emergency responses across the country to immediately stabilize the situation and then begin the process of rolling it back.  

Though it is true that federal funding will be easier to access for the purposes of addressing the opioid epidemic, there are no parameters or guidelines on how those funds will be used. While the hope is that grants and funding accessed for the purposes of impacting the opiate addiction and overdose epidemic will be used to increase access to treatment services, put naloxone into the hands of those who will be most likely to need and use it, and connect families in crisis with support, it may just as easily be used in the so-called “War on Drugs” that is primarily focused on incarcerating people who are living with an addiction and otherwise criminalizing the disorder.  

If your family is in crisis due to opiate addiction, make a point of finding out what is available to you. For those who live in a rural area, it may be possible to seek online treatment and care for addiction. For those who are in need of job training and placement, there may be new programs in California that are geared to help people who have are having a hard time financially due to addiction. 

Remember: Speak up. Ask questions. Ask for help.