BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — With the opioid crisis intensifying and dozens of Americans dying of drug overdoses each day, President Trump plans to hold “a major briefing” on the issue with top administration officials at his private golf club on Tuesday afternoon.
A White House spokesman described the briefing as simply “an update on the opioid crisis” and said that the president is still reviewing a preliminary report from a commission on the crisis that urgently recommended more than a week ago that he declare a national emergency.
During his campaign, the president promised he would swiftly end the crisis by building a wall along the southern U.S. border to stop the flow of heroin into the country, boosting funding for recovery programs and approaching the problem with a humanitarian mind-set instead of a law-and-order one. In November’s election, Trump overperformed the most in counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates, according to a Pennsylvania State University study.
Now, more than 200 days into his presidency, activists say the president has done little to help.
Republicans in Congress have proposed cutting Medicaid in ways that health-care advocates say would reduce access to drug treatment for many, and the president’s budget proposal calls for reducing funding for addiction treatment, research and prevention efforts. Several Republican lawmakers who did not vote for their party’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act earlier this summer said that the legislation would make it more difficult for their states to combat the heroin epidemic.
In March, Trump established the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which is led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). The group was charged with studying “ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis.”
Last week, the commission issued a preliminary report that described the overdose death toll as “September 11th every three weeks” and urged the president to immediately “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”
Doing so would allow the administration to remove some barriers and waive some federal rules, such as one that restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment. It would also put pressure on Congress to provide more funding. But some advocates worry that such a declaration would also expand the powers of the president and attorney general in a way that could allow abuse of law enforcement authority.
Christie said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he has received a “really good response from the White House” on the recommendations.
“We urge the president to take these steps,” Christie said. “He’s taking this commission seriously, as we are. And we make some very aggressive recommendations. And I’m confident he will adopt them.”
A White House spokesman said Tuesday morning that the “administration is still completing the review process of the recently submitted interim report” and is not yet ready for any announcements.
The preliminary report also calls for expanded access to drug treatment for Medicaid recipients, increased use of medication-assisted treatments, development of non-opioid pain relievers, wider use of a drug that can reverse an opiate overdose and more protections for individuals who report a drug overdose to first responders or law enforcement officials.
The report makes no mention of building a wall along the southern border or some of the tough-on-crime measures pushed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, including expanding the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes and seizing more cash and property from individuals suspected of drug crimes.
The opioid crisis has been building for years. In the mid-2000s, prescription overdose deaths began to rise, following aggressive marketing and widespread prescribing of the drugs that started in the late 1990s. When authorities began cracking down on prescription opioid abuse, increasing the street price of such drugs, some users turned to illicit street drugs such as heroin, which is sometimes mixed with powerful synthetic opiates such as fentanyl, making it even more deadly.
In 2015, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. And deaths from drug overdoses rose sharply in the first nine months of 2016, the government reported Tuesday. The rate of overdose deaths increased every three months last year, reaching a record 19.9 per 100,000 people in the third quarter, up from 16.7 for the same three months in 2015. Data for the last three months of 2016 or this year is not yet available.
Since his election, Trump has continued talking about the opioid crisis and making broad promises. In his inaugural address, Trump said “drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” vowing that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
In a January phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a transcript of which was obtained by The Washington Post earlier this month, Trump bragged that he won New Hampshire because the state “is a drug-infested den,” a problem that he blamed on “drug lords in Mexico.” New Hampshire had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During a campaign rally last week in West Virginia, which had the nation’s highest rate of deaths in 2015, Trump promised that “we are going to solve that problem.” In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump called the opioid crisis “a major problem for our country.”
The president’s briefing is set to start at 3 p.m. at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price plans to be there, according to guidance from the White House.
A small group of reporters will be allowed to briefly observe at least part of the meeting, making this the president’s first public appearance since he arrived at the golf resort Friday evening for an 17-day vacation that has been pitched as a “working vacation” while parts of the White House are renovated. Photos trickled out on social media over the weekend showing the president zooming around the resort in a golf cart and greeting guests at a wedding being held at the club.
Lenny Bernstein, Christopher Ingraham and John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.