President Trump's announcement that he would officially declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency could lead to greater access to grant funding and would waive rules to expand access to opioid treatments, experts say.
Trump said Thursday that his administration is working on the paperwork to make the declaration, just two days after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said Trump wasn't going to make the declaration. Previous declarations have been made for the Zika virus and natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.
"I don't think it is just symbolic," said Tom Coderre, a former official with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Coderre said the declaration would open a series of measures that HHS could take to combat the opioid epidemic, which federal data show killed more 33,000 Americans in 2015.
Chief among them is waiving certain rules that would let more treatment centers get reimbursed by Medicaid. Certain exclusions in the Medicaid program essentially block providers from being reimbursed for addiction services in a facility with more than 16 beds.
"It would enable these treatment centers that have 30-50, 100 beds to get reimbursed and accept Medicaid patients," said Coderre, now a senior adviser to the Altarum Institute. "That would be a game changer."
The declaration also means the federal government can access "no-year" funds appropriated to the Public Health Emergency Fund. The funds are available for an indefinite period of time and don't disappear at the end of the fiscal year.
The federal government also can negotiate prices for the overdose antidote naloxone to ensure the medication is affordable. Kaleo Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of an auto-injector that delivers naloxone to patients, has been criticized for large price hikes, and generic naloxone also has climbed in price.
Coderre said the government could hand out grants for new ways to fight the opioid crisis, such as funding peer coaches in emergency rooms who can help addicts who overdose get into treatment or support services after they leave the hospital.
Trump did not say when he would make the official declaration for the national emergency or what actions HHS would take under the emergency declaration.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct information about the manufacturer of auto-injector that delivers naloxone to patients.