President Trump is finally acquiescing to his opioid commission’s recommendation that he swiftly appoint an “opioid czar” to coordinate the federal government’s response to the rapidly worsening opioid epidemic.
And his pick is: Former campaign manager and West Wing strategist Kellyanne Conway, according to Buzzfeed. The pick is significant: Thanks to her frequent television appearances both now and during the campaign, Conway is one of the administration’s most visible figures. Tom Marino, Trump's previous nominee for the position, withdrew after it was revealed he pushed for a bill that made it harder for law enforcement to crack down on opioid drug manufacturers.
As many are already aware, drug-overdose deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, driven primarily by opioids, particularly powerful synthetic opioid drugs that have tainted the US heroin supply and have led to an unprecedented number of accidental overdoses. Last year alone, it’s estimated that 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Conway would be coordinating the opioid response effort from the White House. Of course, the position of director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, another agency that would presumably be heavily involved in the administration's response, remains vacant since Marino withdrew his name from consideration.
The opioid crisis played heavily in Trump’s campaign rhetoric and after taking office he appointed a commission led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to compile a report on effective strategies for combating the crisis. The committee issued more than 50 recommendations, most of which have yet to be implemented, and many likely never will be. Last month, Trump declared the opioid abuse epidemic a national public health crisis, but declined to declare it a national emergency, which would’ve allowed states to receive federal disaster relief funding.
"It is a positive sign, she is a high profile figure in the administration, showing the administration takes this seriously," opioid policy expert Andrew Kolodny of Brandeis University told BuzzFeed News.
But Kolodny noted the administration still hasn't named a head for its Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), or released a strategy to combat the crisis (one is promised in February), or requested any money from Congress to fill the depleted national public health emergency fund — now down to $66,000 — to pay for its health emergency declaration.
Trump has asked her "to coordinate and lead the effort from the White House," Sessions said at a news conference in remarks that went beyond prepared ones from the event. Sessions also announced $12 million in grants to state and local police departments, and the opening of a new Drug Enforcement Agency field office in Louisville to combat illicit opioid use in Appalachia. He also ordered each US attorney's office to name an opioid coordinator.
"I know that this crisis is daunting — the death rates are stunning — and it can be discouraging," Sessions said. "But we will turn the tide."
When Christie’s commission was working, Conway sat in on many of the panel's meetings and has been heavily involved with crafting the administration's response to the crisis. Sessions touted Conway's communication skills at the news conference, perhaps signaling an administration push for public service announcements aimed at changing public attitudes towards opioid addiction.
"Stemming overdose deaths will take a broad interagency approach led by someone with a singular focus and extensive knowledge of the drivers of – and solutions to the epidemic," former ONDCP official Regina LaBelle told BuzzFeed. "Therefore, a Senate confirmed Director of National Drug Control Policy should lead this effort."
Calls for Trump to appoint an opioid czar have intensified in recent days. Earlier this week, Axios published a list of reasons why Trump should appoint someone to coordinate the federal government's response to the epidemic. Axios made the case for appointing a White House drug policy coordinator, the path Trump eventually chose.
"There's only so much money and human capacity to go around. A centralized authority figure could help make sure agencies aren't duplicating each other's work, and set priorities those agencies might not arrive at on their own, but which would contribute more to the broader, inter-agency effort."
However, apparently not everybody agrees on the need to appoint an opioid czar. At a congressional hearing in Baltimore on Tuesday, Christie, who headed a presidential report panel on the opioid crisis, had called the clamor for a US opioids czar "overblown." The steps needed to counter the overdose crisis are well understood, he said, starting with limiting over-prescriptions of painkillers, cutting fentanyl exports from China, and providing the overdose remedy naloxone to communities, and don't need a czar to kick start.
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