Trump Says Administration Working On 'Very Very Strong' Policies To Combat Opioids

Mar 1, 2018
Originally published on March 2, 2018 10:42 am

Updated on March 2 at 10:47 a.m. ET

The White House convened a summit on the opioid epidemic Thursday, where first lady Melania Trump said 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."

Although he had not been expected to participate, President Trump briefly joined the event.

After introducing a personal friend who lost a son to drugs, the president addressed his administration's plans for battling the opioid epidemic. "The administration is going to be rolling out policy over the next three weeks, and it will be very, very strong," Trump said. I've also spoken with [Attorney General] Jeff [Sessions] about bringing a lawsuit against some of these opioid companies."

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 was 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.

Panels planned for Thursday's event included 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. A discussion of law enforcement and drug interdiction efforts with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also planned.

Also on the agenda: 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 were expected to attend as well as about 200 advocates and others directly connected to the opioid crisis. There were 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 a recovering alcoholic and addiction recovery advocate, and former Fox News personality Eric Bolling whose son died of an opioid overdose.

"It's a problem that's growing," the president also said while speaking to those at the summit Thursday. "And drugs are a similar but different problem," Trump also said, "in the sense that we have pushers and we have drug dealers that don't — I mean, they kill hundreds and hundreds of people, and most of them don't even go to jail."

"Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty [for drug dealers]," Trump also said. "And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do. So we're going to have to be very strong on penalties."

Speaking before to NPR before the start of the event, the nation's top doctor said he was a mission to raise awareness about the epidemic. "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.

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A couple hundred people gathered in the White House's East Room today. They came to get an update on the Trump administration's response to the opioid crisis. President Trump declared the crisis a public health emergency back in October. He dropped in on the session today. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The White House summit on opioids started with remarks from first lady Melania Trump.


MELANIA TRUMP: Everyone in this room knows that our country is in the middle of the opioid crisis, and I'm so proud of the work that this administration has already done to combat this epidemic. We all know there is still much work to be done.

KEITH: Many in the room had lost family members to addiction or were in recovery themselves. The president announced the emergency declaration last fall and around the same time accepted the detailed recommendations of a commission he assembled to look into the problem. But today's session spent as much time highlighting the challenges as outlining progress and solutions. Alex Azar is the secretary of Health and Human Services.


ALEX AZAR: One-third of our treatment facilities in America have medically assisted therapy. That's unacceptable. We need - it's a proven, evidence-based approach. And we need to use this funding we're getting to build up more medically assisted treatment facilities.

KEITH: The funding he mentioned was part of the budget deal Congress struck earlier this year. Exactly how the several billion dollars in new funding will be distributed is still to be worked out. When it was time for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to speak, he was fired up.


JEFF SESSIONS: We're going to make a difference. I just tell you. I believe it. I can sense it already in some of the policies that are ongoing out there.

KEITH: This week, the Justice Department announced it would be joining states that are suing drug manufacturers, something advocates say is both a surprising and positive step. Sessions and several others talked about the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is cheap, easy to transport even through the U.S. mail and in recent years has spiked the overdose death rate. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway is directing the White House response to the opioid crisis.


KELLYANNE CONWAY: I would imagine most of America suffers from information underload when it comes to fentanyl, for example, which took the lives of 20,000 Americans last year. And if 20,000 Americans were dying every single year from almost anything, we would stop and turn our attention to that immediately.

KEITH: At the very end of the three-hour summit, President Trump made a quick appearance. The president called onto stage a friend of his, Steve Witkoff, who had lost his son to an overdose.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Would you want to just discuss this because we're all among friends here? You know, it's a tough thing to discuss, right? But I was there when he was going through something with a very special boy, right?


TRUMP: Go ahead.

WITKOFF: I remember the hug you gave me when the world - when I was - when I felt all was lost.

KEITH: Among those in attendance was Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University. He was listening for something more tangible than what he ultimately heard.

ANDREW KOLODNY: They're getting an A-plus for talking about the problem. They're getting an F or a D for responding to the problem. We have yet to see action. We've yet to see a plan. We've yet to see the money that we need to build out a treatment system that doesn't exist yet.

KEITH: And until it's just as easy to get effective treatment as it is to get more drugs, Kolodny says way too many Americans will keep dying. In 2016, more than 42,000 died from opioid-related overdoses. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.