AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Yesterday before his security briefing in Bedminster, N.J., President Trump made an unexpected announcement.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The opioid crisis is an emergency. And I'm saying officially right now it is an emergency.
CHANG: The president said paperwork still needs to be done to make it officially a national emergency. This was a change, of course, from earlier this week when Health Secretary Tom Price held off on making that declaration. We have NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak in the studio now to talk us through all of this. Hi, Alison.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK. So this was a recommendation from a presidential commission studying this issue. And it looked like the White House was not going to accept that recommendation. Now it looks like the president wants opioids declared a national emergency. What is going on?
KODJAK: Well - so what the president's done now is he's said it out loud. He's setting a tone for his administration - the states to follow - that they're going to put this front and center. What would be the next step is to formally declare an emergency, which comes with legal authority and gives the government some emergency powers and money for a limited time. We'll see if that's what he actually - this next step he takes.
CHANG: That's the substantive difference in declaring something - this epidemic - a national emergency, money. Is that the main substantive difference?
KODJAK: Well, there's both. It can unlock money. And it can allow the government to waive regulations and give them additional powers. So for example, they could get money from FEMA if they took that route to give to the states to respond to the crisis. Or, you know, there are state public health workers who right now are working under federal grants on AIDS or diabetes. They can't work on anything else. But if they declared this emergency, the states could redeploy them to respond to substance abuse problems or overdoses.
CHANG: Oh. So there might be more resources for treatment. But President Trump has also talked a lot about law enforcement getting more resources. What bigger role can law enforcement play in all of this?
KODJAK: Well - so here's the issue with this addiction crisis. It often starts with prescription drugs - doctors prescribing opioids for pain or something. But what happens when - people progress to more potent street drugs. So that can be heroin. So there's obviously a role for law enforcement to deal with heroin, you know, dealers, street issues. There's also these new, really potent opioid pills, Fentanyl and...
CHANG: Synthetic opioids.
KODJAK: Synthetic opioids. And one is called carfentanil that law enforcement has been seeing across the country. This is actually an animal - large animal tranquilizer used on things like elephants.
KODJAK: And these are where the real overdoses are happening - people taking these drugs. And so there's a role of law enforcement in trying to keep these out of the country and finding them on the street and who's dealing them.
CHANG: I understand several states have already gone ahead and declared the opioid problem an emergency. What has that meant for them so far?
KODJAK: So states have some powers when they do this. So in Maryland, for example, they make it easier for people to be able to use and prescribe and get a hold of naloxone, which is the drug that can reverse an overdose. If somebody stopped breathing, this will actually start them breathing again. And they also are able to monitor overdoses in real time. They can see where the problems are day to day and respond to those areas and really can get on the case. What they don't have right now is additional money from the federal government. And so that's what the federal response could be - giving them money for treatment beds, for substance abuse, education, things like that.
CHANG: So the communities that are hit hardest by opioid abuse - are they likely to get all they need even with a declared national emergency?
KODJAK: Well, we're getting some mixed messages on that because right now, what they say they need is more treatment beds, more money to answer - to respond to substance abuse issues. But the president's budget actually cuts the Department of Health and Human Services by quite a lot. So unless this brings additional appropriations for substance abuse treatment and response in those communities, it may not actually give them what they need.
CHANG: OK. NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak. Thank you so much for coming in this morning.
KODJAK: Thank you, Ailsa.
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