Trump administration unclear on continuation of opioid 'emergency'

Questions remain about the urgency of the administration’s response to opioids.

January 29, 2018, 6:33 PM

— -- President Donald Trump’s order declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency in October was set to expire last Tuesday — its 90-day mandate must be renewed upon expiration — leading to a lack of clarity in the commitment of the administration's response.

In a statement released Jan. 22, acting Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan renewed the “determination that a public health emergency exists nationwide … as a result of the continued consequences of the opioid crisis affecting our nation.”

When asked if the public health emergency will be renewed every 90 days, HHS did not provide an answer, casting doubt on exactly how long the mandate is expected to last.

The administration’s response to the opioid crisis was also recently overshadowed by the revelation that 24-year-old Taylor Weyeneth serves as deputy chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) — the office charged with leading the administration’s crusade across agencies to confront this crisis. Weyeneth’s only professional experience after graduating college was as a former staffer on Trump’s presidential campaign, The Washington Post reported.

Following this report, the White House told ABC News that Weyeneth is planning to leave his post at the end of the month.

“Mr. Weyeneth has decided to depart ONDCP at the end of the month,” said White House spokesperson Raj Shah. It was unclear whether Weyeneth would continue to serve the administration in a different capacity and neither he nor the White House responded to a request for comment about his future employment.

Publicly, Trump and his administration tout an unwavering pledge to curbing the rampant epidemic.

When he made the public health emergency declaration in October, Trump said he would mobilize “every appropriate emergency authority to fight the opioid crisis” — and even went as far to call the opioid epidemic “the worst drug crisis in American history.”

PHOTO: Discarded syringes are seen in an open-air heroin market slated for cleanup in Philadelphia, July 31, 2017.
Discarded syringes are seen in an open-air heroin market slated for cleanup in Philadelphia, July 31, 2017.
Matt Rourke/AP, FILE

“This crisis remains a top priority for President Trump and his administration,” a spokesperson at ONDCP told ABC News.

While the White House insists the opioid crisis is a top priority, lingering questions remain about the urgency of the administration’s response behind the scenes.

According to a spokesperson at the ONDCP, “The Office of National Drug Control Policy works closely with other federal agencies and White House offices, including Kellyanne Conway’s office, to combat the opioid crisis our nation is currently facing.”

Weyeneth is not the only staffing choice that has cast scrutiny on the agency.

Shortly before Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, his nominee to lead the ONDCP, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., withdrew his name from consideration after it was revealed that he along with multiple other lawmakers passed a bill to significantly weaken the Drug Enforcement Agency’s enforcement capabilities in the opioid crisis in favor of lobbying by pharmaceutical companies.

Since March, Richard Baum has served as the agency’s acting director, or acting “drug czar,” charged with coordinating the federal response to the crisis. A permanent appointment has not been nominated to serve as director.

ABC News could not be provided with an estimate of the number of staff or vacancies at ONDCP after multiple inquiries to the White House, ONDCP and the Office of Personnel Management.

But staffing isn’t the only lingering question. From its inception, there have been mixed messages about funding for Trump’s opioid order.

PHOTO: Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., participates in the House GOP leadership press conference at the Capitol, Sept. 27, 2016.
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., participates in the House GOP leadership press conference at the Capitol, Sept. 27, 2016.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

At the time of the October announcement, two senior House and Senate Appropriations officials told ABC News the White House had not yet requested additional funding to combat the epidemic.

“President Trump has prioritized this issue by declaring the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency and directing the entire Administration to focus combating this ‘crisis next door’ that affects so many American families across the country,” a White House spokesperson told ABC News.

Adding, “We will continue discussions with Congress on the appropriate level of funding needed to address this crisis.”

A leaked memo, reported by CBS News in May 2017, from the Office of Management and Budget’s proposed FY18 budget outlined a plan to redirect ONDCP’s two central grant programs, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas grant and the Drug Free Communities Act, to the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. This plan would effectively slash ONDCP’s budget by 95 percent. Politico reported last week that the administration is attempting again to include this same proposal in the FY19 budget.

An OMB spokesperson said it would not comment on leaked or pre-decisional documents before the budget is released, but OMB press secretary Meghan Burris added, “DOJ and HHS are both major grant management organizations that can look holistically at allocations across law enforcement and drug prevention and treatment resources.”

With concerns over staffing and funding for the administration’s core agency responsible for combatting this crisis, the federal response shows few tangible signs of progress.

But an ONDCP spokesperson said, “The Trump administration will continue to focus its resources to prevent new addictions from developing, and help those already suffering to recover from addiction.”

ABC News’ Katherine Faulders, Alexander Mallin and Jeffrey Cook contributed to this report.

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