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Communities Key To Fighting Opioid Crisis, HHS Secretary Says

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price says "We're losing as a nation," when it comes to opioid abuse.
Andrew Harnik
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price says "We're losing as a nation," when it comes to opioid abuse.

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 is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.