President Donald Trump says he now plans to heed the advice of his own White House commission on drug addiction and declare the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency.
Trump announced the impending declaration Thursday just two days after Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price told reporters that it was not necessary.
"The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I'm saying officially right now it is an emergency," Trump told reporters Thursday at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, Somerset County. "We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis."
It was not immediately clear when the declaration would be issued or what specific actions it would call for. Trump said his administration was in the process of writing it.
"It is a serious problem, the likes of which we have never had," the president said. "There's never been anything like what's happened to this country over the last four or five years. And I have to say this in all fairness, this is a worldwide problem, not just a United States problem. This is happening worldwide. But this is a national emergency, and we are drawing documents now to so attest."
Declaring a national emergency was the first recommendation of the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in an interim report that the group, led by Gov. Chris Christie, issued last month. Leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives' Bipartisan Heroin Task Force had also called on the president to heed the commission's advice and make the declaration.
The task force is led by New Jersey Congressmen Tom MacArthur and Donald Norcross, as well as New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster and Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
In a statement Thursday morning before Trump's news conference, the four leaders called for Congress and the Trump administration to take "immediate, meaningful action to address the opioid epidemic," and heed several of the recommendations put forward by the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction, including that the president immediately declare a public health emergency.
Days earlier, Trump had vowed that he would work with health professionals and law enforcement on the crisis and that federal drug prosecutions would rapidly rise, but he made no mention of declaring an emergency.
Following the president's Tuesday remarks, Price told reporters the administration could deploy the necessary resources and attention without declaring a national emergency, although he stressed that "all things are on the table for the president."
Christie, who chaired the White House commission, did not attend either of the Bedminster news conferences because he was vacationing with his family.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, he thanked Trump for accepting the commission's recommendation.
"It is a national emergency, and the president has confirmed that through his words and actions today, and he deserves great credit for doing so," he said. "As I have said before, I am completely confident that the president will address this problem aggressively and do all he can to alleviate the suffering and loss of scores of families in every corner of our country."
MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River, who is a co-chairman of the House's task force on the issue, also endorsed several of the commission's recommendations, saying they were aligned with many of the items on the task force's own legislative agenda.
During an interview on WOBM-FM (92.7) radio Wednesday night, MacArthur said he also believes a public health emergency should be declared, because it would give the administration added resources and "authority to act."
"We have a huge crisis in the country with the abuse of opioids, and it's not like some prior drug crises which were sort of walled off from most of society. This is everywhere. This is every community. It's every part of communities," he said. "People are getting addicted to drugs legally and feeding that addiction illegally."
MacArthur and the task force also echoed the commission's call for the administration to immediately grant waivers for all 50 states from a decades-old federal restriction that prevents drug treatment centers with more than 16 beds from billing Medicaid for residential treatment services.
The restriction, known as the Medicaid Institutions for Mental Diseases exclusion, was designed to prevent Medicaid funding from going to private mental health institutions accused of warehousing patients. But it has been cited by lawmakers and advocates as a major obstacle for people suffering from substance abuse disorders to receive inpatient treatment.
The rule was cited as one of the primary reasons for the April closure of Post House, a 48-bed drug treatment center in Pemberton Township.
"It's a rule that's nonsensical to me. One of the things the commission recommends is that be eliminated. I agree 100 percent," MacArthur said, citing legislation penned by Fitzpatrick and endorsed by the task force to eliminate the rule.
He also said there is broad agreement among lawmakers that more education should be required about alternatives to opioids for pain management and the addiction risks the drugs pose, as well as greater border control measures to stop illegal drugs from being smuggled into the country.
Norcross, D-1st of Camden, who serves as a task force vice chairman, echoed the calls for fast action on several of the commission's recommendations.
"The disease of addiction is a national emergency, and every delay means more loved ones will die," he said. "The Bipartisan Heroin Task Force has been offering common-sense legislative solutions to deal with this national emergency, and the administration's own commission is now suggesting many of the same solutions. There's no time to wait to put these policies in place."
This story contains information from the Associated Press.