Christie-Led Opioid Task Force Wraps Up as Pressure Mounts on Trump to Act

Lilo H. Stainton | October 24, 2017 | Health Care
Governor disputes panel member’s pessimistic comments, says he’s confident president ‘supports fighting this epidemic aggressively’

Nearly six months after its work began, the White House task force on opioid addiction chaired by Gov. Chris Christie is finalizing its last report on how best to address the disease and waiting for President Donald Trump to act on its top recommendation.

The panel, which is scheduled to finish up its work in a week, issued a draft report in August that outlined a number of strategies to curb drug use and improve recovery options. The group also urged Trump to immediately declare opiate addiction a national health crisis.

Trump said at the time he would indeed make such a national declaration, but he took no further public action until it came up at a press conference last week. When asked about the holdup after an event on his tax cut proposal, the president said there would be a “major announcement” on the addiction issue sometime this week.

Christie voiced his support for the president’s strategy yesterday, challenging comments made to the Washington Post by another member of the panel, former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, who suggested Christie was impatient with Trump’s lack of action on the issue. Kennedy, a Garden State resident and advocate for addiction services, said panel members were pessimistic about the president’s willingness to follow through on their recommendations.

Christie: Comments by Kennedy ‘false’

“The comments attributed to me today by Congressman Kennedy are false. I speak for myself on this issue,” Christie said Monday. “Let me be very clear. I know that President Trump understands this issue and supports fighting this epidemic aggressively. In the days ahead, I am confident that the President’s actions will speak louder than anything else.”

At a Rose Garden press conference a week ago Monday, Trump suggested the process has been harder than people might anticipate, but an announcement would be coming soon. “We are going to be doing that next week. By the way, you know that’s a big step,” the president said. “And to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done and it’s time-consuming work. We’re going to be doing in next week, okay?”

Various news reports suggest administration officials are now scrambling to finalize a formal emergency order and assemble a public relations strategy to accompany its rollout.

Christie declared addiction a public health crisis in New Jersey in January and has led efforts to implement a number of state programs that also reflect elements of the federal recommendations; these include steps to scale back the number of opiates in circulation, to expand access to overdose antidotes, like Narcan, and to invest in new treatment programs and facilities.

Pressure has been mounting on the president to take action on the issue, which he prioritized during his campaign after a visit to New Hampshire, which has been particularly hit hard by opiates and heroin addiction. The disease now kills some 142 Americans a day, Christie notes, and it ended the lives of nearly 2,000 New Jersey residents last year.

Will conservative Republicans balk?

In March, Trump signed an executive order to create the task force, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and tapped Christie to lead the effort. The group held its first meeting in June, took testimony from dozens of experts, collected some 8,000 comments during the early part of the summer, and produced the interim draft report in August.

While that document was only a first step, and the panel pledged to keep working until its November 1 deadline, the draft report made clear the president could also have an impact immediately.

“You, Mr. President, are the only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe you have the will to do so and to do so immediately,” states the report, which Christie said he wrote much of himself. “Our nation is in a crisis. Your Executive Order recognized that fact. The work of your Commission so far acknowledges the severity of this national problem.”

The task force held its last public meeting on Friday, at the White House, to assemble final recommendations to the Trump administration. But Kennedy, a Democrat, and others have suggested these proposals may not be easy for the administration and its conservative Republican supporters to swallow.

Expensive remedies

For example, some of the conclusions are likely to be expensive — like calls to expand treatment capacity, or enabling Medicaid to cover more treatment — and could contradict administration efforts to cut taxes or spending. These goals might also conflict with efforts to repeal the 2014 Affordable Care Act, which has extended coverage to some 800,000 additional Garden State residents, and millions nationwide.

“To implement the recommendations that we’ll offer, it will require hundreds of billions of dollars,” Kennedy told the Washington Post.

Other goals — like restricting access to opioids by strengthening state prescription-monitoring databases and prescriber limits — are likely to be opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, some providers, and pain patients.

Regardless of the federal efforts, Christie has continued to invest in efforts to reduce addiction and improve recovery options here in New Jersey. Last month he outlined how $200 million in “lapsed” funding would be applied toward dozens of new and existing programs, including a $40 million effort to expand effective treatment options to low-income adults. (Lapsed funding is monies that are not expected to be spent in a year’s specific budget line.)

And in early October, the governor released a report from his own expert panel, the Drug Abuse Control Task Force, which contained 40 recommendations that involve improving education, beefing up prevention and intervention efforts, as well as expanding treatment and recovery options. The findings, he said, could have widespread implications.

“The work of the task force has already inspired several groundbreaking initiatives, many of which I rolled out this past month,” Christie said. “Going forward, it will serve as a blueprint for further work that needs to be done both in New Jersey and across the nation.”