TLANTA — President Trump is determined to expand access to addiction treatment to help curb the opioid crisis, several of his top health advisers said on Wednesday.
But they offered few details on how they would fund those efforts at a time when the administration is also pushing for deep budget cuts to domestic programs and seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which extends mental health and addiction treatment to millions.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told advocates gathered here at a summit on drug abuse that his agency would boost access to opioid treatment, support “cutting-edge research” on new treatment, and push for better practices to help patients manage their pain, to cut down on prescriptions of powerful opioids.
“We lose a Vietnam War every single year to drug overdoses,” Price said. “… It must be stopped.”
In his speech, Price announced the release of $485 million in grants to fund evidence-based treatment — part of the 21st Century Cures Act signed into law last year.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close Trump adviser who’s now a paid spokesperson for Advocates for Opioid Recovery, urged health officials to expand treatment by deregulating doctors. Current law limits how many patients doctors can treat with medications such as methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine, which can help keep cravings in check. (Braeburn Pharmaceuticals Inc., a New Jersey-based maker of an buprenorphine implant, funds Gingrich’s group.)
“We need to change the rules, change the regulations,” Gingrich said. “Trump is trying to cut out things are stupid. If you want to cross a regulation that’s truly dumb or unnecessary … these regulations are stupid.”
But Price pushed back a bit on the notion that expanding access to the medications — which can themselves be addictive — is the sole answer.
He called for a development of safer painkillers and eventually a vaccine for opioid addiction should happen in the future. And, he noted, the industry should be “revisiting and rethinking” the pain management revolution that he saw firsthand as an orthopedic surgeon in the ’90s, when it was common practice to prescribe potent painkillers to patients, without thought about the risk of addiction.
“The concept of pain as a ‘fifth vital sign’ struck me and many others as simply nonsensical. There was, and still is, a pervasive sense that doctors will be judged in part by how well patients were satisfied with the pain treatment they got,” Price said.
Kana Enomoto, acting deputy assistant secretary for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said the department hopes to focus particularly on helping people struggling with addiction when they’re admitted to hospitals. Two of five drug users receive no addiction treatment before discharge.
Richard Baum, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said expanding access to treatment would save lives at a time when more than 8 million people struggle with drug-use disorders but three-fourths of them don’t believe they need treatment.
“Let’s not make it easy for those who experience an overdose, moments away from death, to go back to using drugs,” said Baum.
Speakers at the summit also made a point of warning that Trump’s proposed budget cuts could be disastrous for people trying to overcome addiction.
Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, a former House appropriations committee chair whose district has been ravaged by opioids, said he didn’t believe his fellow members of Congress would go through with cuts that could limit treatment options.
“We just can’t do that,” Rogers said. “It would set us back into the dark ages.”
Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told STAT she holds the same hope. “In an era where budget-cutting is the norm, we’re optimistic that this will remain a priority for legislators,” she said.