WASHINGTON — Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, has been leading weekly meetings at the White House with officials across a dozen federal departments to develop a plan to respond to the opioid crisis and to implement recommendations from a presidentially appointed commission, she and other officials told STAT.
The “opioids cabinet,” as the group is known, is intended to help streamline efforts across the government and includes staffers from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, among other executive branch offices.
In an interview with STAT, Conway said she and other administration officials have also been urging Congress to appropriate additional funding for addiction treatment and prevention programs. She pushed back on the notion that the White House is not allocating sufficient resources to combat the opioid epidemic, citing ongoing conversations with budget director Mick Mulvaney.
Conway and other administration officials have barnstormed the country since the start of the year to talk with state and local authorities about the opioid epidemic, in many cases returning to states where the candidate Trump listened to pleas for help from communities struggling with the opioid crisis. But in her role in the White House meetings, the longtime political consultant is playing a more active part in helping to shape policy.
She is doing so at a time when there are leadership vacancies at HHS and the Drug Enforcement Administration; the administration also currently does not have a “drug czar.” The White House has been criticized for delegating a significant policy role to Conway, who has no prior experience working on addiction issues or as a policymaker. But Conway said she is unbothered by the perception that she is serving as a sort of stand-in for the formal agency heads.
“I’m no substitute for that,” Conway said. “Those are incredibly important roles and I think the men currently in those jobs as acting directors are really doing excellent jobs of making sure there’s seamless activity.”
She cited a variety of factors for her interest in the cause — most notably, a cousin who overdosed multiple times but was revived by first responders before finally passing away once, as Conway put it, “the body just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Despite her unorthodox background, Conway has impressed some addiction policy experts of varying political leanings with her tone, sincerity, and policy expertise.
“Unfortunately the administration’s been living in chaos and has really been unable to get out from underneath the weight of their own self-induced crises,” said former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who sat on the White House commission, which concluded its work in November.
“If anybody can get the administration to do that successfully, I think it’s Kellyanne,” Kennedy continued. “Bringing in someone else who the president doesn’t know as well or have confidence in isn’t the right answer, given this president. In another administration you’d get someone with a tremendous CV and unsurpassed record of commitment to public health to lead this. But the president, as we all know, operates very differently from past presidents.”
Dr. Stefan Kertesz, a professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s medical school who studies the opioid crisis and addiction treatment, said Conway has been talking about addiction as an illness and the ways in which communities can provide treatment and support.
She is “trying to change the frame,” Kertesz said, citing a press conference in August at which Conway spoke, along with Tom Price, then the secretary of health and human services.
“I heard a broader perspective,” Kertesz said. “She re-categorized the problem as a community issue. She spoke specifically about listening to communities that are affected.”
Conway has not been without her slip-ups.
“It takes money and it also takes a four-letter word called will,” she told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in June, describing what a federal effort regarding opioids should look like.
Despite the ambiguity of the remarks — and questions over whether she was referring to political will — addiction treatment experts believed Conway was suggesting that willpower could be an effective treatment for what the medical community views as a disease. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) demanded an apology.
Many critics of the administration have also been skeptical of the president’s repeated reference to his own abstinence from drugs and alcohol as a model of how to address substance abuse disorder. In the interview with STAT, Conway, too, cited Trump’s abstinence.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the president has never tried a cigarette, a drop of alcohol — a drop of coffee, for that matter,” Conway said.
While the White House’s efforts to tackle the opioid epidemic have so far resulted in few new sweeping initiatives and virtually no new funding for addiction treatment and prevention, Conway has been engaged on the issue from the start. One report late last month referred to her as the administration’s “opioids czar,” a description the White House promptly rejected.
“I’ve been working on this, in my portfolio, since February or March,” she said. “But I’m very happy to get that role now post-commission report and post-convening the opioids cabinet — that role is one of coordination, communication, and then the real public-facing messaging the president wants.”
The coordination itself is a sizable task. The opioids cabinet includes representatives from numerous other federal departments — Justice, Agriculture, State, and Housing and Urban Development — as well the vice president’s office and the Office of Management and Budget.
Separately, Conway has met with the administrator of Medicare and Medicaid to discuss changes to reimbursement policy at inpatient mental health facilities, and with the labor secretary to discuss using apprenticeship programs as a component of holistic addiction treatment. Conway is also personally following through on the marketing campaign she cited, which the president has described as “really great advertising so we get to people before they start” and has repeatedly told Conway is a personal priority.
Participants in meetings with Conway say her role has been more than just administrative.
At multiple points during the White House commission’s work, two attendees said, she served as a de facto political consultant to the panel, which was chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
According to attendees, she worked at one point to refocus the group after a disagreement over whether to cite a recent study showing that marijuana legalization in Colorado coincided with a lower number of opioid deaths.
Issuing policy recommendations acknowledging that study — which NIH Director Francis Collins has warned does not demonstrate a causal link — would be both politically self-defeating and likely medically unsound, Conway warned.
“The Commission acknowledges that there is an active movement to promote the use of marijuana as an alternative medication for chronic pain and as a treatment for opioid addiction,” the final report read. “Recent research out of the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse found that marijuana use led to a 2½ times greater chance that the marijuana user would become an opioid user and abuser.”
Conway declined to say how much the administration would like to see Congress appropriate, but added that she is working with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on finding additional funds. “The resources need to be there, but so does the education,” she said.
A leaked draft in a White House budget last year showed a proposed 95 percent cut to ONDCP. Current conversations include a request to most cabinet departments to “find room in their budget” to help fund the marketing campaign, Conway said.
Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced bills that would fund treatment and prevention to the tune of $45 billion over the course of the next decade.
Even without a sweeping bill from Congress, Conway said, there is other simple work to be done, citing a Baltimore Sun article detailing the state’s 800 fentanyl-related deaths in the first half of 2017. Baltimore’s health officials say that in part because of federal resource constraints, they still don’t have sufficient access to overdose reversal drugs.
“Given that there is no DEA head, there is no ONDCP head, and there is no HHS head, bottom line is if she represents the administration on this crisis I’d just assume it’d be someone [Trump] really likes and admires,” Kennedy said. “You can have the person with the best credentials in the world fill one of those spots. But at this stage it’s about hiring the people with the right political will.”
or two years I have sent info to the White House and DOJ (scanned documents ID # 3908388) requesting the position. I chatted with Ms. Conway and told her I could and would end the illicit drug deaths within two months if nominated. I have said that taking the same old failed paths will lead to the same results. Nominating Mr. Carroll is the failed pathway forward. Under his watch, the crisis has exploded.
I am available to serve…..
I would suggest that Kellyanne Conway objectively interviews 1000 people that are in chronic pain and have been for years. That is the only way the other side of the coin will gain any perspective. Don Quixote,(Trump), can only charge so many windmills. And I’m a card carrying Republican. Legislation is the wrong approach. This problem cuts through all demographics, the metro areas, the country, and the suburbs, rich or poor, white, black or other. Pain is not a discriminator of persons, as I found out nine years ago.
The NIH has overlooked the facts that medical marijuana has actually HELPED reduce the amount of opioids that are needed by chronic pain patients! Please do not forget those of us who are in chronic pain – we are not abusers – but we are dependent on opioids to even achieve a functioning quality of life! My doctors have become more and more frightened to prescribe my pain medications to me but yet they are not able to offer any alternative remedies either. I am in constant pain due to severely deteriorated joints from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. I would appreciate discussing this with KellyAnne or anyone who will listen! There IS another side to the story! Those who are going to abuse will always find yet another vice…those of us in chronic pain need help. Thank you.
I’m so tired of this. This “War on Drugs” and “opioid epidemic” B.S. What it is, is a war on people with chronic pain. They’re doing NOTHING to stop illegal drugs. They are only taking them from those who use them responsibly.
I am interested in taking action to rid the country of “the war on drugs” by the DEA. I am a chronic pain patient with three serious diseases, which include my Heart, Kidneys and I have Diabetes for 38 years.
The DEA has mad a total sham of our healthcare industry. My Doctor is afraid to even apply for a medication for me for breakthrough pain. I cannot take anything but an opiate because anything else will destroy my already failing kidneys.
I am not opiate naive. Why not give require patients who will need opiates to attend a process in which they are taught how to take opiates correctly. I am sure that during this type of process that the abusers will be vetted out. The training would also require that the patient have a drug-free support person like me to make sure that I do not forget which time I took my dosages. My wife and I came up with this methodology ourselvs and it has worked wonders. In 10 years I have never been early for my prescription.
You are a miracle worker !! Please help American rid this scourge called the DEA of which 99.9 percent know nothing about opiates as well as most Doctors.
From the article:
>>>”[Concerning] a recent study showing that marijuana legalization in Colorado coincided with a lower number of opioid deaths…. Issuing policy recommendations acknowledging that study — which NIH Director Francis Collins has warned does not demonstrate a causal link — would be both politically self-defeating and likely medically unsound, Conway warned.”
The NIH is rabidly prohibitionist and their “information” can’t be trusted. Their branch, NIDA, has been desperately funding research for decades, looking for some significant harm of marijuana to prop up the fraudulent prohibition. In all that time, they have not found even ONE. If they had, they, the DEA, the ONDCP, etc. would be shouting it from the roof tops and it would be on everyone’s tongue. – Instead:
So, ironically, even NIDA has given marijuana a clean bill of health!
Why would acknowledging the truth about marijuana be “politically self-defeating?” Who are they protecting that would be negatively impacted by ending the monstrously destructive, fraudulently-enacted marijuana prohibition?
Could it be: the police and prosecutors who build their careers and empires on the fraudulent marijuana prohibition? Or industries like alcohol and pharmaceuticals that don’t want the competition? Or other interests like the drug treatment/testing industry and the prison industries that depend on it for their life’s blood? Or the banks and shaky corporations that couldn’t exist without the laundered money? Or the corrupt politicians, like Richard Nixon and AG Jeff Sessions, who use the insane war on marijuana consumers to oppress and prevent community organizing of minorities and progressive groups? Or the milionaire drug gangs themselves who could not exist without prohibition? Or all the ancillary industries that sell to or service the above groups?
Trump’s swamp is spilling over like a tsunami. – Welcome to Planet Swamp!
Does the thought of Kelly Anne Conway being in charge of anything THIS important scare the life out of any chronic pain person but me???
I hope they are focusing on the Herion and Fentynol Epidemic.. it’s not the prescription drugs that are killing people it’s the Herion mixed with fentynol .
Kelly ann stated Trump had no addictions and that he had never had a sip of coffee. Trump drinks diet Coke can after can. Doesn’t she realize caffeine is a drug and thats whats in his diet Cokes. And to think she us going to lead this group on drug addiction. They don’t need all these people sitting around spending money doing investigations and talking for years and in the end never accomplishing anything. The answer ti fixing the problem has been there but no one wants to really fix the problem because having addicts generates money and jobs it also means there will be drug dealers which get caught who have lots of money and property that the government gets to keep . Its like free money for the government and creates jobs for the police and courts. Anyone who thinks I’m wrong or nuts just think about if there were no addicts, drug dealers there would be very little crime so jails would close , police would be laid off along with lawyers and judges, rehabs would close and all the businesses who do business with all the jails would also lose out and lay off people. Probation and parole officers would not be needed. Where would all those people find work? More than likely they would soon become criminals out of desperation. Our government does not want to end addiction thats why all they do is talk talk talk
Wow linda luera I think you may have a point
Linda, I think your post nailed it. Something to also think about – “Busting” doctors for “overprescribing” (who determines that btw?) is much more lucrative than the average drug dealer. If you’ll notice, most of the doctors they “bust” are in their 50’s. By this time, they most likely have accumulated a good deal of assets – both personal and business. When a doctor is raided by the DEA, the DEA usually seizes all or most assets. One does not have to even be charged when this happens. This also ensures job security for the DEA and other law enforcement now that mj is legal (for medicinal and recreational use in many states. Doctors and their assets have been the DEA’s cash cow for quite awhile.
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