President Donald Trump on Tuesday vowed his administration would beat the opioid epidemic by beefing up law enforcement and strengthening security on the southern border to stop illegal drugs from entering the country.
Trump, joined in Bedminster, N.J., by HHS Secretary Tom Price and other administration officials, emphasized a tough law-and-order approach, rather than new treatment or social programs, as as the White House’s primary strategy for halting an epidemic that kills 142 Americans every day, according to federal statistics.
"Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society," Trump said. "I’m confidant that by working with our health care and law enforcement experts we will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win." The remarks echoed similar comments made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this summer.
Trump as a candidate vowed to confront a public health crisis that has hit states he carried like West Virginia and Kentucky especially hard.
Trump on Tuesday stopped short of declaring the crisis a national emergency — a recommendation the White House’s opioid commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, made last week.
Price later told reporters the administration is treating the opioid epidemic as an emergency, but that it does not need to make a formal declaration.
"We believe that at this point, 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. Although all things are on the table for the president," Price said.
He added that the Health and Human Services Department, along with the Justice Department and other agencies, will be working on a strategy to fight the crisis together. "We’ll do that in short order," he said.
The Trump administration has consistently taken a law-and-order approach, despite concerns from experts who say treatment should be the priority.
The administration also backed the GOP’s Obamacare repeal and replace proposal that the CBO estimated would slash Medicaid — the largest payer of behavioral health services — by $800 billion. Advocates have stressed that such a proposal would almost certainly result in less access to treatment for people with addiction.
About 1.2 million people with substance abuse disorders got insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, according to a study published in Health Affairs. It has also paid for between 35 to 50 percent of all medication-assisted treatment administered to help fight opioid addiction, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health.
Tuesday’s focus on opioids was quickly praised by GOP lawmakers including Sen. Rob Portman, who campaigned heavily on combating the opioid epidemic during his reelection bid last year and has made it one of his top legislative priorities.
“There is no doubt that this heroin and prescription drug epidemic is a national crisis, and I applaud the president for making this issue a priority," Portman said in a statement.
The White House’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis last week had recommended the emergency declaration, saying it would allow the federal government to more quickly free up federal funds to expand access to substance-abuse treatments — specifically medication-assisted treatment. Price expressed skepticism about the treatment earlier this year during an appearance in West Virginia. He later walked back his remarks.
During Tuesday’s briefing,which included high-profile members of the administration such as counselor Kellyanne Conway and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump focused on border security and enforcing laws.
Price later insisted that the Trump administration is not interested in cutting Medicaid.
"The president’s goal make certain we have a health care system that works for patients," Price said.
Tuesday’s meeting came as new federal data shows drug overdose deaths are on the rise, despite federal and state efforts to curb the crisis. In the first nine months of 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics estimates overdose fatalities hit a record 19.9 per 100,000 people, up from 16.7 for the corresponding period in 2015.