The Trump administration is handing out $144 million in grants to combat the opioid epidemic — but officials still won't say when or how the president plans to declare it a national emergency, as he promised last month.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway announced the grants during a visit to an addiction-treatment center in Delaware County on Friday, part of a listening tour on the crisis in opioid addiction.
But when asked why Trump has not formally declared a national emergency over the opioid crisis, Price said the administration was still "determining the formality of what that is."
He said the president knows the crisis requires federal aid and support to state and local governments, and that HHS has been tasked with figuring out what options are available. He said he expected to be able to share details on such a declaration shortly.
Experts have said that declaring a national emergency, which would require a presidential directive, could free up federal funding and ease regulations so states can get more people into treatment, though some advocates have worried that the Trump administration might use emergency aid to step up law enforcement rather than public health measures.
Price and Conway said their conversations with treatment providers, law enforcement professionals, and people in addiction recovery at Mirmont Treatment Center in Media were productive, and that they would take the stories they heard to the president.
Price, a former Georgia congressman on his first visit to Pennsylvania as a member of Trump's cabinet, said he supports local governments' efforts to treat people addicted to heroin in ways that make sense for the community: "We're not here to dictate how best to care for them."
He said he supported "evidence-based" options for people suffering from addiction, including medication-assisted treatment, but, though asked, didn't explicitly say whether he supported safe-injection sites, which Philadelphia is considering. Medical experts say safe-injection sites cut overdose deaths and encourage people with addiction to seek treatment; Trump's presidential commission on opioids, which garnered praise from advocates, did not mention medically supervised injection.
In Philadelphia, emergency medical crews administered the overdose-reversal medication naloxone to more than 3,000 people during the first six months of 2017, up more than 75 percent compared to the same period last year.
Accidental overdose deaths statewide increased 37 percent in 2016, according to data collected from county coroners throughout Pennsylvania by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The latest federal data show a 21 percent increase in total drug mortality — a projected 64,000 deaths nationwide — for the 12 months ending Jan. 31.
Conway, who's from South Jersey and quipped at the end of the press conference that she was taking Price to Wawa, said the administration wants to "add our voice" to calls to remove the stigma from addiction. "We want people to stand up and say, 'I need help,' " she said. She said she had been particularly impressed by a treatment program for police officers, firefighters, and other first responders at Mirmont.
The grants announced Friday are aimed at training first responders, expanding access to long-term addiction treatment and overdose-reversing drugs like Narcan, treating new mothers addicted to heroin, and expanding access to medication-assisted treatment.