SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump's official designation of America's opioid crisis as a public health emergency Thursday drew optimism from state decision-makers, though a Utah Department of Health official cautioned the gesture is mostly symbolic for now.
"I think in general, we have to be realistic about how much this really does do, but we also are grateful for it," said Angela Stander, prescription drug overdose prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Health. "It's helpful to ... the public health."
Stander said state health officials "don't see much funding" accompanying Trump's announcement.
"When we alert (the public) of a public health crisis, it's mostly to raise awareness and increase prevention efforts and that's what I see this doing. ... It alerts us as a public to be more aware of the dangers of these (opioids), makes patients feel like they can have a conversation with their doctor when they're prescribed these things," she said.
"Hopefully it will encourage some addicts to speak up and say 'Yeah, this is a crisis and this is what I'm dealing with,'" she added. "We definitely are happy about it."
Stander hopes Trump's announcement means physicians will also take notice and will proactively try to find ways to prescribe fewer opioids, such as screening patients for risk of addiction as well as having more thorough conversations with them about the pitfalls of using an opioid medication.
Stander said state legislators and the health department took a similar measure in 2016, declaring opioid abuse a public health crisis in Utah.
Trump said Thursday that more than 11 million Americans abused prescription opioids and more than 1 million used heroin in 2016. He called the scourge of opioid addiction "the worst drug crisis in American history" and a "national shame."
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who has championed the issue of prescription drug abuse particularly as it relates to drug crime and addiction among the homeless population in the Rio Grande neighborhood in downtown Salt Lake, praised Trump's ideas on combatting the crisis.
"I was worried there would be low hanging fruit ... but I heard some specificity in his (remarks) today," Hughes said. "I think we have the full attention of the president on this."
Hughes pointed out Trump's remark that he would ask the Food and Drug Administration to entirely remove one particularly risky opioid from the market, his promise that states seeking exceptions to addiction treatment would get approvals more quickly, and the anecdote Trump shared about brother, Fred, who struggled with alcoholism and taught the president the importance of avoiding the plague of addiction.
"I think empathy is a powerful teacher and motivator, and I felt there was a lot of empathy from our president on the issue of addiction, which we need," Hughes said.
He was particularly encouraged by Trump's remarks promising that the federal government soon "will be bringing some very major lawsuits against people and against companies that are hurting our people."
"I like to hear that he is encouraging litigation. I appreciate hearing the president talking about (how) civil action is required," Hughes said, against drug manufacturers and distributors who "knowingly pushed drugs ... with dangerous consequences to them."
Hughes wants Utah to likewise sue such manufacturers and distributors — and, preferably, to do it individually. Suing in conjunction with other states provides more "political cover," he said, but results in less of a payout that can be funneled back into the fight against opioid addiction.
"The manufacturers and distributors, those are the ones that — I think there's things that have gone on that scrutiny and discovery would show that what happened should not have happened," he said. "You've got storefronts where it's a pain clinic — it's a pill mill — it isn't a kind of medicine you see practiced anywhere (else) in the world. ... We've developed ... an appetite for — we don't want to feel any pain ever."
Asked whether there were specific companies he would like to see Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes chase after, Hughes said he isn't sure precisely which organizations should be prioritized.
"I'm glad I don't know (because) you can't say I'm making it personal to anyone," he said. "What I can tell you is we've got a crisis on our hands."
The Utah Attorney General's Office declined last week to comment on whether it would file any lawsuits against opioid manufacturers or distributors. But it announced in September that Reyes was one of 41 state attorneys general signing on to an investigation into the practices of several pharmaceutical companies in order to determine what role they "may have played in creating or prolonging this epidemic."
Hughes said the ball is in Reyes' court to "be aggressive" against any guilty parties, and is not ultimately in the hands of legislators.
"(But) if we need (to pass) a resolution to express the political will of the public servants in the House and Senate, I think we can do that," he said.
On average, 91 Americans die per day from an opioid overdose, a number that has quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two Utahns die per day from opioid overdose.
Those numbers have also caught the attention of Intermountain Healthcare. The organization, which runs 22 hospitals and 180 clinics and is Utah's largest employer, announced in August that it would set a goal to reduce the opioid prescriptions it gives out for acute pain by 40 percent by the end of 2018.
The organization estimates that roughly 7,000 opioid prescriptions are given out per day in Utah and that 85 percent of heroin addicts first got hooked on opioids through a prescription.
Intermountain Healthcare CEO Dr. Marc Harrison said "we appreciate this additional focus on the opioid epidemic that has been affecting our state and nation."
"We are highly interested to see what specific changes the announcement brings as we continue to tackle this issue," Harrison said in a statement provided to the Deseret News. "Intermountain Healthcare has been partnering with many state entities and community partners to address opioid use, and we look forward to continuing this vital work.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, praised Trump's announcement , saying he is "sobered by the president's action.
"I hope this will provide the necessary resources and coordination to address the opioid epidemic that is sweeping our country," Hatch said in a statement. "Although this crisis is affecting all states, it has been particularly devastating in my home state of Utah, where dozens of men and women die each month from overdose."