The anticipation was high. President Donald Trump promised “a major briefing on the Opioid crisis.” This came just a little over a week after Trump’s commission on the drug crisis had made its preliminary recommendations, telling the White House to declare a national emergency and take other steps to increase access to addiction treatment.
Then the briefing came and went — and basically nothing happened. Before the event, Trump made some vague comments that his administration was going to do something. An hour and a half later, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway — but not Trump — held a press conference in which they reiterated (without any specifics) the administration’s intent to combat the crisis.
Price did clarify, though, that the president will not declare a national emergency for now, arguing that it’s “on the table” but that it’s not necessary to take further action. He added that the commission’s recommendations are still “under review” throughout the federal government.
Meanwhile, people keep dying. As the commission noted in its preliminary report, “With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks. After September 11th, our President and our nation banded together to use every tool at our disposal to prevent any further American deaths. Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the Executive Branch even further to deal with this loss of life.”
And Trump should have a personal interest in this issue. According to an analysis by historian Kathleen Frydl, most of the counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania that swung from Democrat in the 2012 election to Republican in 2016 were hit hard by the opioid crisis. It seems to be a major reason Trump won this election.
But there has been no big plan or even an indication that one is coming.
This isn’t because we don’t know what to do. As I noted in my explainer about how to stop the opioid epidemic, we have a pretty good idea: boost access to treatment, pull back lax access to opioid painkillers while keeping them accessible to patients who truly need them, and adopt harm reduction policies that mitigate the damage caused by opioids and other drugs. (More details in the full explainer.)
This is along the lines of what the commission recommended, with specific policy steps to accomplish those goals. It’s along the lines of what the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine proposed in a recent report. It’s along the lines of what the surgeon general’s big addiction report suggested needs to be done. It’s what every expert I talked to said needs to be done, with wide agreement on specific policy changes and steps.
Yet the major actions the Trump administration has taken so far actively work against these goals. Trump’s budget proposal would do little to nothing to boost access to addiction treatment. Congress, with Trump’s support, has worked to repeal Obamacare and, as a result, reduce access to insurance that can pay for treatment.
Today could have been a moment in which the Trump administration got something done. But all we got was another briefing and press conference — and nothing else to show for it.
For more on the opioid epidemic, read Vox’s explainer.