Columns

Kennedy on Opioid Crisis: Fund at Levels, Urgency of Hurricane Harvey Aid

Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) arrives for a President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Sept. 27, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) applauded President Trump’s Oct. 26 speech on confronting the opioid epidemic and said Congress must act now to pass funding for treatment, comparing the situation to the way lawmakers handled the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

“There’s a disconnect, frankly, from what this president has said, which we love – and I have to say, like many other advocates, it meant a lot to me to have a president of the United States say what this president said – but then not to follow it up, you know. We have a phrase in recovery, and I am someone in recovery from an opioid addiction, that you can’t talk the talk, you have to walk the walk, and right now we’re not seeing that from the White House,” Kennedy told PJM before a briefing on Capitol Hill with Advocates for Opioid Recovery and the Collaborative for Effective Prescription Opioid Policies the week before Thanksgiving.

“Any time a president speaks from the White House in personal terms, about his brother, knowing this is a disease of addiction, and then to talk about it in such a consequential way, saying this is the challenge of our times – that’s very powerful, and frankly it was a call to arms,” he added. “It sounded that way to me, so I am waiting for the call. We’re ready to roll.”

Kennedy suggested Trump and the Republican-led Congress follow the lead of Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

“Chairman Christie was fantastic and, as I said, he’s appropriated the dollars in New Jersey. He has walked the walk. He’s appropriated nearly half of what Congress has appropriated for the whole country just in New Jersey,” he said.

Kennedy urged Congress to appropriate at least $10 billion to deal with the opioid crisis, but said $15 billion per year would be more appropriate. He called the opioid crisis a national emergency, noting that Congress approved $15 billion for the relief effort after Hurricane Harvey.

“What’s it going to be? $12 billion, $15 billion? Can we move it up to where AIDS has been? $23 billion a year to tackle the HIV/AIDS problem,” Kennedy said during the briefing. “We had a comprehensive approach. We got FDA working. We got HHS working. We got everybody, full hands on deck — $23 billion. And where are we now? $500 million a year. You can’t make this up.”

Kennedy said that in a decade “people are going to have died out of simple negligence, because it is the ultimate example of how much we hate people with this disease.”

“And we ascribe our personal judgments of people with this illness in the form of not doing anything to life a finger to save them from dying of this illness – that’s the fact. If it wasn’t such a stigmatized illness we would be all falling all over ourselves to get the dollars to address this crisis, but we’re not,” said the former congressman, who served from 1995 to 2011.

“It’s not up to us to look to anywhere other than in ourselves because we all harbor these feelings,” Kennedy added. “We all know it in our lives that they exist because in our own families we don’t talk about these illnesses. Because we still have that age-old mentality that somehow it’s someone’s choice to get up every single morning and figure out how they’re going to alienate themselves from every one of the persons that they’re closest to.”

During his recent opioid speech, Trump said the U.S. has to finish the southern border wall to prevent illegal drugs like heroin from coming into the country.

“An astonishing 90 percent of the heroin in America comes from south of the border where we will be building a wall, which will greatly help in this problem,” said Trump.

Kennedy was asked if increased border security would help alleviate the opioid crisis.

“We have to do everything. It’s comprehensive. You’ve got to do interdiction, reduce the supply, but you also have to reduce the demand and you’ve got to get in early in terms of prevention to keep people from starting in the first place,” he said.

The FDA recently approved a nasal form of Naloxone, which treats opioid overdoses, to be sold over-the-counter at pharmacies. An FDA commission recently recommended Buprenorphine, an opioid that lacks the physical high delivered by other prescription pain pills, for approval. Kennedy thanked FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb for his leadership.

“Once you give [patients] a Naloxone, then give them a shot of Buprenorphine and that shot is imminent thanks to FDA and Scott Gottlieb,” he said. “Thank you, Scott Gottlieb, for your leadership at the FDA.”