BY SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, TOM PRICE
AND COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT, KELLYANNE CONWAY
ON THE OPIOID CRISIS
Bridgewater, New Jersey
4:40 P.M. EDT
SECRETARY PRICE: Good afternoon. We just have come from an extremely productive meeting with the President and the First Lady gathered to talk about the opioid crisis. The President and the First Lady are absolutely fully engaged on a tragedy that is crossing the country.
The President understands the magnitude of this challenge, how devastating it is, how it’s devastated individuals and families and communities large and small. He understands the effect that it has had on our nation, especially on families and on children.
The numbers are absolutely daunting — 52,000 overdose deaths in 2015; 33,000 of those approximately related to opioids. The numbers in 2016 are no better, and the numbers in 2017 are even worse than 2016.
So we briefed the President on our strategy through Health and Human Services Department, a strategy that includes making certain that we have the resources and the information necessary for prevention and treatment and recovery; providing best practices for states and those that are engaged in that process; making certain that we have overdose reversing medication — naloxone and Narcan — as present as needed and possible anywhere across the country; making certain that we’re doing the data — identifying the data, the public health aspect of it — of this: Why is it that 52,000 Americans succumbed to an overdose death in 2015 and those numbers continue to increase? Fourth is the research aspect of this. What is the NIH doing? What can they do? And of exciting things to provide for, hopefully, pain medication that is not addictive or is not euphoric.
One of the exciting things that they’re actually working on is a vaccine for addiction, which is an incredibly exciting prospect.
And then, finally, how do we treat pain in this nation? As a formerly practicing physician — orthopedic surgeon — I know that physicians and other providers have oftentimes sensed that there is an incentive to provide narcotic medication. And we need to do all that we can to make certain that, yes, people are provided appropriate narcotic medication when necessary, but no more than necessary.
We wanted to make certain that the President understood that it was his entire Cabinet and the federal government that were involved in this process. This is an interdepartmental, interagency process that’s moving forward.
We’ve met previously with the Department of State, Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, ONDCP, and others to make certain that we’re working together on a comprehensive strategy that we’re in the midst of right now and that we will be presenting to the President in the near future.
At the end of all of that, the President made certain that we understood that he was absolutely committed to making certain that we turn this scourge in the right direction, turn this tide in the right direction; make certain that we see the number of overdose deaths and the number of individuals addicted to medication decreased.
And he has made certain that we understand and appreciate that this is an absolute priority of his administration, as it has been from day one.
One of the things that we’ve done to try to bring a voice to it and bring faces to it is to go around the country in multiple states and to visit communities and try to find those best practices — what’s working out there? What hasn’t worked? Talk with those families that have been devastated by the addiction crisis; talk with folks who’ve been addicts and have recovered. What is it that worked? And it’s so uplifting and inspiring to hear the stories of many of those individuals.
One of the President’s senior counselors, Kellyanne Conway, has accompanied me on many of those trips, and she was at our meeting today, and I know that she wants to say a few words, as well.
MS. CONWAY: Thank you, Secretary Price. And it’s very nice to have the acting Director of ONDCP Richard Baum with us today, as well.
The Secretary and I have traveled to a number of different states, and we have heard the harrowing and very sad stories, but we also have increasingly met those who have successfully gone through treatment and recovery.
We’re very heartened to learn many people who are beating opioid epidemic, and we recognize this is a polydrug problem in our nation, that we are a nation that consumes legal and illegal drugs at a very high and alarming rate.
The problem is very complicated, and currently we’re on the losing side of this war. With the President’s leadership and the First Lady’s involvement across a spectrum of different cabinets and agencies and different departments within the West Wing, we are confident that we can help those in need across this country.
We know that this involves public health, the medical community, healthcare delivery system, law enforcement, education, local and statewide elected officials, devastated families, and those in treatment and recovery. We have presidential imprimatur leadership on this issue, but we full-on know that most of the great work is being done at the state and local levels. Those who are closest to those in need know best how to help them.
We didn’t get here overnight, and we know that we can’t solve the crisis overnight either. That said, I’d like to bring attention to some other areas with respect to the opioid and drug epidemic that sometimes go uncovered.
With a 52.7 percent increase in outpatient veterans treated for substance abuse disorders from 1995 to 2013, it’s an increasing concern that addiction is plaguing our veteran community, as well. And we’re working with Secretary Shulkin on that.
The next generation of the crisis is being seen in the number of newborns that are born addicted to opioids and other drugs. In fact, in this country, now NIH estimates that every 25 minutes a newborn is born addicted to opioids.
We are working hard to also stop the import of fentanyl into this country and to work with those governors and health commissioners and others within the states who are interested in reducing the number of pills and days in a prescription and also in working with the curriculum so that our medical professionals are more educated and more conversant with and versed in prescribing methodologies, as well.
President Trump and the administration are working tirelessly toward this, and I would just say that having traveled this country and studied this issue very closely, no state has been spared, and no demographic group has gone untouched. This is not a problem of young or old, of black or white, of rural, urban, or suburban. It really has affected all of our communities in varying degrees.
It is also a nonpartisan issue in search of bipartisan support and bipartisan solutions, and we do hope that those in a position to help with the decision-making and advocacy and solutions, and those charged with covering this issue, as well, will agree that it is nonpartisan in search of bipartisan solutions.
Thank you very much.
SECRETARY PRICE: Happy to take a question or two. Yes.
Q Mr. Secretary, a couple of questions. Several attorneys general, including some Republicans, have said manufacturers of opioids should be sued and are culpable, or should be legally culpable for parts of this crisis. Do you agree with that? What’s the administration’s orientation to those laws?
SECRETARY PRICE: Well, there are a couple suits that are out there right now that have already begun. I think that this gives voice and punctuates the damage and the harm that people have felt because of this crisis. There isn’t a position that the administration has on these suits at this point. But it has clearly gotten the attention of the pharmaceutical companies. Some have analogized it to the tobacco issue and the master settlement that occurred, I don’t know, 20 years, with the issue of tobacco. Whether there is something that’s analogous to that, I don’t know. But it’s —
Q Do you see it in that light, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY PRICE: Well, what I see is that there is — that we continue to move in the wrong direction on the number of individuals that are not only addicted, but the number of individuals that are losing their lives to addiction. And so the President is absolutely committed to solving that problem, and we are going to turn over every single rock and make certain that we’re identifying every single thing that could move us in a better direction.
Q Is it a national emergency?
SECRETARY PRICE: Well, the President certainly believes that we will treat it as an emergency — and it is an emergency. When you have the capacity of Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium dying every single year in this nation, that’s a crisis that has to be given incredible attention, and the President is giving it that attention.
Q Mr. Secretary, thank you. I was curious — those of us old enough to remember the crack problem 20-plus years ago, how is this different? And how is the approach to deal with the opioid problem going to be any different? And are we just going through a cycle of a new crisis every 20 years and the public forgets? I mean, what’s different here?
SECRETARY PRICE: Well, it’s different for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the magnitude and the numbers of individuals succumbing to addiction and losing their lives. And this is relatively recent; in the past 10 to 15 years, these numbers have spiked up. So the difference is that the crack cocaine issue, which was a terrible, terrible issue, but it didn’t have the potency of the medication that exists right now. Right now, carfentanyl and fentanyl exist in a way that kill individuals with very small doses. The cost of illicit drugs, the cost of heroin, for example, is significantly lower than it has been. So the access to these drugs is that much greater.
So it may be cyclic in terms of generational engagement or involvement, but, as Kellyanne said, this knows no age distribution. It’s affecting folks young and old across all demographics in our society. So we believe that it is different if only because of the potency of the medication and the numbers of individuals who are succumbing to it.
Q Secretary Price, thank you. I do have a question for Kellyanne, but first to you. Why has the President not officially declared the opioid crisis a national emergency? And does he plan to?
SECRETARY PRICE: Well, most national emergencies that have been declared in the area of public health emergency have been focused on a specific area, a time-limited problem — either an infectious disease or a specific threat to public health. The two most recent that come to mind are the Zika outbreak and Hurricane Sandy. So we believe that, as this point, that the resources that we need, or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis at this point can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency, although all things are on the table for the President.
Q So it’s not imminent that he would do that, but it’s on the table.
SECRETARY PRICE: All things are on the table.
Q Okay. And then, Ms. Kellyanne Conway, if you’d like to weigh in on that. And then also, if I can ask you about the President’s comments on North Korea. He said that North Korea, if they continue their threats, will be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Can you explain specifically what he meant by “fire and fury”? Is that military action?
MS. CONWAY: No, I can’t. I think the President’s comments were very strong and obvious. I know all of you covered them live. And I would defer to other members of Dr. Price’s cabinet to comment further.
Q And anything you want to add to the emergency status question?
MS. CONWAY: No, because I’ll leave that to the health professionals. But I will tell you that the President and the First Lady are taking very seriously what is an absolute epidemic, and they see it that way also. We are at a very peak level. And one thing I should have mentioned earlier that is a very important component here is destigmatizing the use — the misuse of substances. We find time and again people are just too fearful to come forward and admit that they have a problem, admit it to the people closest — their family members, their friends, their colleagues.
And also, something that we discussed with the President and the First Lady at length are the different accounts that we’ve heard in states, and you can see the stories for yourselves:
“We’re so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Jones. We tried to save your son. In fact, we resuscitated him three or four times over the last six or eight months, but this time he was too far gone.” And they say, who, what, when? They don’t even know that their son or their loved one has had a substance misuse disorder — a substance abuse disorder. And sometimes the privacy laws don’t allow parents of a 19-year-old, in fact, to be notified. So this is something of which we’re very aware also.
Q The President’s commission on the opioid crisis recommended that the President urgently, immediately call this a national emergency because that frees up resources; that lifts some of these barriers that allows more Medicaid recipients to go into treatment. Why do you feel like that isn’t something that needs to happen right now? I mean, was the commission wrong on this?
SECRETARY PRICE: No, there’s an interim report from the commission and it’s being reviewed at all different levels of the government. But everything that you just mentioned can be done, and many of it — much of it is being done without the declaration of a national emergency — either a Stafford Act emergency or a public health emergency. So —
Q So they’ve expanded to let more Medicaid recipients —
SECRETARY PRICE: Everything that you talked about can be done. Now, we’re talking about what should be done, and working through the department and through the other agencies that I mentioned, to come forward with that coherent strategy, that comprehensive strategy and recommendation for the President, and we’ll do so in short order.
Q Yes, just to follow up on something Kellyanne Conway said. So are you looking at changing privacy laws or HIPAA around drug addiction, specifically? I guess either of you can answer it.
SECRETARY PRICE: Yeah, this is really an important issue because one of the things that we’ve found when going around the country is that it’s the local communities, it’s the local, loving community — the families, the organizations within communities — that are so pivotal to providing success for individuals getting through the treatment and on to recovery.
And so it’s devastating for anybody to learn of a family who is not able to be notified that one of their loved ones has had a problem with addiction because of privacy laws. So we’re looking through the regulatory process to determine what can be done, if anything, to make it so that those requirements are not — those privacy requirements are not as onerous in the case of an overdose. And it certainly is something that Congress could address, and we’ll talking with them and have had conversations with many of them about that.
Q Speaking of Congress, is the healthcare bill dead?
SECRETARY PRICE: The healthcare challenge across this nation is not dead, and so what we believe needs to occur is that the Congress needs to address the issue in a way that allows individuals to gain the kind of access to coverage and care that they need.
Thank you all so much. Thank you.
Q Do you still want to cut Medicaid drastically? Because the report talks a lot about Medicaid use.
SECRETARY PRICE: Nobody is interested in cutting Medicaid. The fact of the matter is that the President’s budget and the proposals that were before Congress were an effort to try to secure and make a Medicaid system work for patients. That’s the goal that we have.
We have one-third of the physicians in this nation who ought to be seeing Medicaid patients who aren’t seeing Medicaid patients. That’s a system that may work for the federal government, it may work for insurance companies, it may even work for Medicaid programs, but it doesn’t work for patients.
The President’s goal, the President’s desire, our focus, and our desire is to make certain that we have a healthcare system that works for patients.
Thank you all.
4:57 P.M. EDT