White House Gives Status Update On Opioid Emergency

March 1, 2018

Updated at 2:31 p.m. ET

The White House convened a summit on the opioid epidemic Thursday, with first lady Melania Trump saying she is proud of the what the administration has already accomplished on the issue, but that “we all know there is much work still to be done.”

Since President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency last October, advocates and members of Congress have complained they haven’t seen much action and have struggled to get information about what the administration has been doing.

White House officials insist the administration has been hard at work, and that’s what Thursday’s opioid summit is all about. It featured Cabinet members, along with Mrs. Trump and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway.

The summit was intended to “highlight the progress the Administration has made to combat drug demand and the opioid crisis,” a White House official said in a statement.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, opioid-related overdoses killed more than 42,000 Americans. That’s an average of 115 deaths every day.

Last November, the president’s commission on opioids released a lengthy set of recommendations, and most remain a work in progress or unaddressed altogether.

Several advocates NPR contacted ahead of the summit said they hadn’t seen as much action as they had hoped, especially in the area of making quality, scientifically sound treatment options more readily available.

In recent weeks there has been some movement, with a congressional budget agreement pledging to add several billion dollars to combat the crisis and the Department of Justice announcing it would work with states that are suing drug manufacturers.

Still, the advocates said that is far short of what they had hoped when Trump declared an emergency, and they said they were interested to see what new information they could learn from the White House summit.

President Trump, however, is not expected to attend. Panels include a discussion of prevention, treatment and recovery with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson. There will also be a discussion of law enforcement and drug interdiction efforts with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

There will also be a question and answer session with Jim Carroll, the recently named acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. President Trump has also nominated Carroll to permanently hold the position of “drug czar.” Trump’s first nominee was forced to withdraw. Carroll is a lawyer who has extensive government and private sector experience but hasn’t done any work in the public health arena.

Other administration officials are expected to attend as well as about 200 advocates and others directly connected to the opioid crisis. There are some well-known names among them, including former congresswoman Mary Bono, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi who was a member of the president’s opioid commission, the first lady of North Dakota Kathryn Helgaas Burgum who is herself recovering from opioid addiction and former Fox News personality Eric Bolling whose son died of an opioid overdose.

“We want America to understand this is a problem,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in an interview that aired Thursday on Morning Edition. “The majority of the public does not see the opioid epidemic as rising to the level of an emergency, so it’s important that we continue to say at the highest levels, this is a problem in all communities and it’s getting worse.”

But he added he also wants Americans to have hope. “The administration has prioritized the issue and is implementing strategies around saving lives, lowering demand and lowering supply,” said Adams.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.