National opioid epidemic emergency declaration will save lives

David Plazas
The Tennessean
  • President Trump refused to declare a public health emergency recently. Thankfully, he reconsidered.

The opioid epidemic is a national emergency that requires special attention and greater focus and resources to fight it.

President Donald Trump's declaration of a public health emergency is welcome, needed and essential to save lives.

The rate of hospitalizations for Tennesseans 65 years and older due to painkillers has more than tripled in a decade.

Drug overdoses are the No. 1 killer of Americans: 142 people are dying in the U.S. every day. Tennessee has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the nation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 33,000 people died from an overdose and 20,000 were dying from their addiction in 2015, according to the most recent CDC data.

There are 22 drug overdose deaths for every 100,000 Tennesseans, and 6,036 overdose deaths have been recorded over a five-year period through 2015 in the state. The number has grown annually, and experts say there may be more than official reports state.

Although Trump on Tuesday initially declined to declare a public health emergency, he wisely reconsidered on Thursday.

"The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I'm saying officially right now it is an emergency," he said. "It's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis."

That is encouraging and hopefully he will set aside the law-and-order approach he initially touted because it simply does not work.

President Trump speaks at a meeting with administration officials, including Counselor Kellyanne Conway and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, on the opioid addiction crisis at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey Tuesday.

► Read More:Opioid crisis 'knows no bounds,' says Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price

► Read More:Max Barry died from combination of several drugs, including two opioids, autopsy shows

The USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee has learned through reporting, research and by hosting public forums on the opioid epidemic in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville over the past year that health, community and law enforcement officials believe an education and treatment approach is superior.

Congress affirmed this when it passed and President Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) last summer and the 21st Century CURES Act in December.

The tragic death of Max H Barry — the son of Nashville Mayor Megan Barry — of an overdose from a combination of drugs, including two opioids, made this epidemic so very personal to the community.

Barry has courageously dealt with her grief by talking about her son’s death, his time in rehab and the need for parents to speak with their children about drugs. She backed escalating the federal government’s response.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry talks about her son, Max, during a news conference Monday, Aug. 7, 2017, in Nashville. It was the mayor's first public appearance since her son died July 29.

The president's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and Opioid Crisis recommended in a draft report released recently that Trump declare a national emergency under the Public Health Act or the Stafford Act.

► Read More:Study links mental health disorders with greater opioid use

► Read More:BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee sees sky-high rate of opioid use disorder

The White House has proposed a budget that would invest $1.3 billion in the CARA and CURES Acts and $27.8 billion in prevention, treatment and law enforcement.

Declaring the national emergency allows states to receive waivers from rules and regulations, use Medicaid dollars to expand treatment and strengthen local efforts. 

State and local officials have increased their efforts.

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell appointed an opioid task force. 

Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Mufreesboro, are drafting legislation for the 2018 legislative session that would target the illegal production and distribution of opioids.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office of Eastern Tennessee has created an Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit — one of 94 funded nationwide — to focus exclusively on the epidemic.

Nancy Stallard Harr, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, announces the district's participation in the Department of Justice's Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit.

Barry said Metro Nashville police officers are carrying Narcan, the brand name for naxolone, an overdose antidote.

The nonpartisan Nashville-based research center The Sycamore Institute has started a three-part series documenting what Tennessee is doing and offering recommendations for how the state can address the crisis.

Among Sycamore’s takeaways are the need to create a broad behavioral health-focused approach that works on prevention and treatment. A major barrier for people, though, is the cost of treatment.

Now that Trump has declared a national public health emergency, the White House should turn its attention to treatment and education as the primary strategy for combating the opioid epidemic.

Opinion and Engagement Editor David Plazas wrote this editorial on behalf of The Tennessean Editorial Board and the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee. Call him at (615) 259-8063, email him at or tweet to him at @davidplazas.