WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday stressed the importance of prevention and law enforcement in a briefing on the opioid crisis at his New Jersey golf course, but stopped short of declaring the state of national emergency that his own opioid commission has recommended.
Health Secretary Tom Price told said the administration has the resources it needs to combat the epidemic without invoking the emergency powers.
"The president certainly believes we should treat is as an emergency, and it is an emergency," Price told reporters after meeting with Trump. "Look, when you have the capacity of Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium dying every single year in this nation, that's a crisis that had to be given incredible attention, and the president is giving it that attention."
A formal declaration of a public health emergency — or a presidential emergency declaration — would give the administration additional powers to waive health regulations, pay for treatment programs, and make overdose-reversing drugs more widely available.
But Price said those powers are intended more for shorter-term, more localized public health crises.
Speaking at a meeting with health and drug policy officials, Trump gave his most extensive remarks on the opioid crisis since his commission delivered an urgent preliminary report eight days ago.
Reading a statement to reporters from a working vacation at his Bedminster National Golf Club, Trump called overdose deaths "a tremendous problem in our country."
"Nobody is safe from this epidemic that threatens all — young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural communities. Everybody is threatened," Trump said.
"The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don't start, they won't have a problem," he said. "If they do start, it's awfully tough to get off. So if we can keep them from going on and maybe by talking to youth and telling them: 'No good, really bad for you in every way.' But if they don't start, it will never be a problem."
Trump cast the issue as largely a law enforcement problem, noting that federal drug prosecutions have declined over the last five years. "So they looked at this surge and they let it go by. We're not letting it go by," he said.
His remarks also made no mention of treatment, despite a top recommendation from the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis that the U.S. "rapidly increase treatment capacity." The commission found that only 10% of drug treatment facilities provide medication-assisted treatment for opioid abuse.
One member of the commission, Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, has called for “law enforcement-assisted diversion” of addicts into treatment.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” he said during the July 31 meeting of the commission. “These law enforcement officials and prosecutors, they know it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to have these people sitting in jails.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said the president understands that a strategy will require effort on multiple fronts.
"The problem is very complicated, and currently we are on the losing side of this war," she said. "We know that this involves public health, the medical community, the health care delivery system, law enforcement, education, local and statewide elected officials, devastated families, and those in treatment and recovery."
Opioids include heroin, but also prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone. Overdoses attributed to these drugs claim an average of 142 lives a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Among those briefing the president on the opioid crisis were Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Richard Baum, the acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Herb Jackson of the Bergen Record contributed.