Communities Key To Fighting Opioid Crisis, HHS Secretary Says

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 9:23 am

In March, President Trump called opioid abuse in the U.S. "a total epidemic," and issued an executive order creating a commission focused on combating the opioid crisis.

On Wednesday, the White House announced it would appoint Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Harvard Medical School researcher Bertha Madras to the commission, which is headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Now, the secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, is touring communities that have been hit especially hard by painkiller and heroin overdoses.

Price spoke to NPR's Rachel Martin shortly after visiting West Virginia. He talked about his agency's role in combating drug addiction, as well as the potential impact of the health care bill recently passed by House Republicans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On the administration's approach to opioid abuse in the U.S.

The purpose of this tour is to punctuate the president's commitment to solving the opioid crisis. The numbers, as you know, were absolutely astounding: 52,000 overdose deaths in 2015, [and] 33,000 of those by opioid overdose. So what we're trying to do is to learn from folks on the ground. What are their best practices? What kinds of things are they doing that are working to solve this crisis?

On the resources being promised to state governments

Well, this administration's commitment to this is unparalleled. There are hundreds of millions of dollars that are coming forth to fight the opioid crisis. Just two or three weeks ago we let, from the federal government, over about $485 million of grants to states. So resources are important but they're not everything, because we're still losing as a nation in this arena.

On President Trump's budget proposal to reduce funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy by 95 percent

Yeah, this is an office within the White House — not within the Department of Health and Human Services, but within the White House. I think if you step back and look at the entire federal spending on the opioid crisis, folks will see that, in fact, hundreds of millions of dollars more [in] spending is occurring on the opioid crisis. ...

The budget's a work in progress, so I don't know that any final decisions have been made [about funding], but the president's commitment to this challenge is unquestioned.

On the health care bill recently passed by House Republicans

Well, the health care proposal itself is an effort to try to save the health care system from the challenges that it currently has. Premiums are going up; deductibles are going up. So, it's failing the very people that it's supposed to help.

The goal of the of the new health care legislation is to improve that system so that every single American has access to the kind of coverage that they want for themselves and for their families.

On the current loophole in the Republican health bill that would allow states to stop requiring insurers to cover essential benefits, including substance abuse treatment

No, what [the bill] does is stipulate where those decisions should be made. Should those decisions be made at the federal level or should they be made at the state level? And there's a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that, when those decisions are made at the state level, they're more responsive to the ... constituents.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Trump administration is making new moves to combat a national health crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in our country. And opioid overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled since 1999. This is a total epidemic.

MARTIN: That's President Trump at an event about substance abuse in March. The president has talked a lot about fighting opioid addiction, but there are concerns his policies might actually take resources away from those who need help.

I spoke with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price about that on the heels of a listening tour that he went on this week around the country to discuss opioid addiction. That tour took Price to West Virginia and other states hard hit by painkiller and heroin overdoses.

TOM PRICE: The purpose of this tour is to punctuate the president's commitment to solving the opioid crisis. The numbers, as you know, are absolutely astounding - 52,000 overdose deaths in 2015, 33,000 of those by opioid overdose. So what we're trying to do is to learn from folks on the ground. What are their best practices? What kinds of things are they doing that are working to solve this crisis?

MARTIN: When you were in West Virginia. You talked about expanding the resources that states have on hand to solve the epidemic to solve this challenge. What resources specifically are you talking about, and who might get them?

PRICE: Well, this administration's commitment to this is unparalleled. There are hundreds of millions of dollars that are coming forth to fight the opioid crisis. Just two or three weeks ago, we let from the federal government about $485 million of grants to states. So resources are important, but they're not everything because we're still losing as a nation in this arena.

MARTIN: So you talk about all the resources that have been allocated. At the same time, the Trump administration's new budget plan proposes massive cuts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has historically been the agency that leads on combating drug abuse. It's proposed that that budget gets slashed by 95 percent. How do you square that?

PRICE: Yeah. This is an office within the White House, not within the Department of Health and Human Services but within the White House. And I think if you step back and look at the entire federal spending on the opioid crisis, folks will see that, in fact, by hundreds of millions of dollars more spending is occurring on the opioid crisis. So...

MARTIN: So was it just viewed that it wasn't effective, that the office under the auspices of the executive branch wasn't working, and so there was a decision to reallocate that money through HHS?

PRICE: The budget's a work in progress, so I don't know that any final decisions have been made. But the president's commitment to this challenge is unquestioned.

MARTIN: You have supported the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. How does the new health care proposal help deal with the opioid crisis?

PRICE: Well, the health care proposal itself is an effort to try to save the health care system from the challenges that it currently has. Premiums are going up. Deductibles are going up. So it's failing the very people that it's supposed to help. So the goal of any new health care legislation is to improve that system so that every single American has access to the kind of coverage that they want for themselves and for their families.

MARTIN: Although on this issue, the bill actually overturns a provision in the Affordable Care Act that had required insurance companies to provide coverage for substance abuse treatment. The new bill gives insurers, as I understand it, an out so they don't have to do that anymore.

PRICE: No. What it does is stipulate where those decisions should be made. Should those decisions be made at the federal level, or should they be made at the state level? And there's a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that when those decisions are made at the state level, they're more responsive to the individuals being represented by the constituents.

MARTIN: Tom Price is the secretary of Health and Human Services. Thank you so much for your time.

PRICE: Thanks, good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.