President Donald Trump took a welcome step this week to combat a deadly public health crisis — the widespread abuse of legal and illegal opioid drugs.

But additional presidential action is needed if the nation is serious about stemming this epidemic’s tragic toll of more than 33,000 deaths a year. Specifically, Trump also needs to protect Medicaid, the public health program that covers treatment for millions of Americans struggling with addiction and other behavioral health issues.

Regrettably, Trump didn’t stress Medicaid’s connection to the fight against opioid addiction in his public appearances this week. Nevertheless, his announcement that opioid abuse is a “national emergency” signals his strong concerns. Trump declared the emergency on Thursday after questions about whether he had done so lingered from a Tuesday press briefing.

The president’s words matter here, which is why clearly declaring an emergency is so important. The emergency status gives the Trump administration flexibility to direct additional funding to treatment and prevention. It also could allow officials to expand the number of treatment centers eligible for Medicaid reimbursement, broadening access to those in the program.

Acknowledging the severity of the problem is helpful, too. Trump still enjoys wide support in many of the states hit hardest by the opioid scourge. His concerns about prevention will hopefully resonate strongly in these areas.

Trump would do well to follow the pragmatic solutions outlined in a preliminary report from a presidential commission on opioid addiction. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie led the group. Recommendations include: an emergency declaration; mandating additional addiction education for medical providers; expanding access to a drug that can quickly treat opioid overdoses; and reducing red tape in the Medicaid program limiting treatment options.

But broader presidential leadership on Medicaid is critical if real progress is to be made. The program ought to be strengthened during a crisis like this, not put in budget cross hairs, as it currently is in Trump’s proposed spending plan. Republican health reforms in the House and Senate also called for deep cuts to the program over the next decade.

Medicaid covers the poor, the disabled and long-term care for many elderly. Many people struggling with substance abuse are also impoverished and, therefore, eligible for the program. In 2014, Medicaid funded 21 percent of all addiction spending, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In Minnesota, the program pays for nearly 32 percent of addiction treatment medication.

Medicaid’s expansion under the Affordable Care Act also allowed more people to qualify for the program, which further helped addicts get into treatment.

Strengthening this safety-net program is a sensible response to a public health crisis. Trump’s next steps should be calling out those who disagree.

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Trump should strengthen Medicaid if he’s serious about opioids – Minneapolis Star Tribune