The Stafford Act:
This act allows the president to declare a national disaster or emergency, and describes what FEMA should do to coordinate the response. "Disaster" is reserved for natural disasters, so this would be an "emergency".
There are two ways for an emergency to be declared:
- The governor of the state follows their state's emergency plan and determines that their state does not have enough resources to handle it. The governor then makes a request to the president for federal assistance.
- The president can declare a national emergency without a request, if it occurs in an area of "federal primary responsibility". (For example, an emergency was declared under this act for the Murrah Federal Building bombing, because it was US government property.
Once declared, the president can direct any federal agency to help the area, coordinate relief, distribute supplies, and provide emergency communications or transportation. The president can also authorize loans to the local government or housing assistance for affected citizens. In addition, Title VII Section 701 says that "the President may prescribe such rules and regulations as may be necessary and proper to carry out any of the provisions of this Act".
The Public Health Service Act:
Section 319 authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to determine if a public health emergency exists. Once a public health emergency has been determined, Secretary of HHS can:
- use funds from the Public Health Emergency Fund
- temporarily reassign public health personnel
- enforce quarantine regulations
- use drugs from the Strategic National Stockpile
- make grants to investigate the cause, treatment, or prevention of whatever caused the emergency
- issue an Emergency Use Authorization for unapproved drugs or other products
The Secretary of HHS can also waive or modify requirements of Medicare, Medicaid, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act, if a Stafford Act or National Emergencies Act declaration is also in place.
The main differences between the two seem to be:
- who declares the emergency (president vs. Secretary of HHS)
- if a governor's request is needed (yes, if it's not in an area of federal responsibility vs. no)
- which department handles the emergency (FEMA vs. HHS)
- where the resources come from (any federal agency vs. HHS)
The president may run into issues with Stafford, because to declare a national emergency without governor requests, he will have to argue that the drug addiction issues occur in a federal area of responsibility. (In all descriptions I found, "area" appears to be interpreted only as a literal geographic locale.) Otherwise, he must wait for governors of affected states to request assistance, which they may or may not want to do. I wasn't able to find examples of the Stafford Act being invoked for instances like this, where the "emergency" is not a singular event, so it's possible there would be pushback from other political figures as well.
On the other hand, the Secretary of HHS can unilaterally declare a public health emergency. Although not as wide-ranging as Stafford, this would allow use of emergency health-related resources. This is arguably easier to do, and would still enable the most immediate recommendations of the commission regarding making overdose rescue drugs more available and increasing funding for treatment and education.