Addiction Treatment Initial Focus of Opioid Commission

By Pat Anson, Editor

President Trump’s commission on drug addiction and the opioid crisis held its first public meeting today, a two-hour session focused largely on expanding access to addiction treatment.

Chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the commission is expected to make interim recommendations to the president in the next few weeks on how to combat drug abuse, addiction and the overdose epidemic, which is blamed for the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans last year. A final report from the commission is due by October 1.

It is not clear yet how much of a role opioid prescribing and pain medication will play in the commission’s work. Most of its five members have publicly blamed overprescribing for causing the opioid epidemic.

“No offense, but that is where this came from,” said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a commission member.

“The opioid crisis is ruining lots of people’s lives and lots of families across America," David Shulkin, Secretary of Veterans Affairs told the commission. "At the VA, my top priority is to reduce veteran suicides. And when we look at the overlap between substance abuse and opioid abuse, it’s really clear.

“We’ve been working on this for seven years and we’ve seen a 33 percent reduction in use of opioids among veterans, but we have a lot more to do.”

Shulkin did not mention that veteran suicides have soared during that period, and are now estimated at 20 veterans each day.

“We also need to look at pharmaceutical companies making generic drugs more tamper resistant and looking at making drugs that do not cause addiction,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a commission member.

Commission member Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman who has battled substance abuse himself, said there has been a “historic discrimination” against mental health and addiction treatment.

“I’m excited by the chance to kind of push for ways that we can hold insurance companies more accountable, so that the public sector doesn’t have to pick up the tab. Because its taxpayers that are picking up the tab when insurance companies continue to push folks with these illnesses off into the public system,” Kennedy said. “This is a cost shift that is a windfall for insurance companies if they can get rid of people who have mental health or addiction issues.”

Limits on Opioid Medication Not Working

“Let me be blunt. Today there is not nearly enough drug treatment capacity in America to help most of the victims of the epidemic,” said Mitchell Rosenthal, MD, who founded Phoenix House, a nationwide chain of addiction treatment centers.

“Most terrifying is the reality that nothing we are doing today has been able to halt the spread of opioid addiction. Controlling prescription opioid medication has not done so. Prescription monitoring programs, strict limits on the number of pills physicians can prescribe, and the CDC pain management guidelines seem to have capped usage of prescribed opioid medications. But overdose deaths from heroin and highly potent synthetics like fentanyl have gone through the roof.”

One activist called for wider adoption of the CDC opioid guidelines and rigid enforcement if doctors don’t follow them. Gary Mendell, the CEO and founder of Shatterproof, a non-profit focused on preventing addiction, said each state should be held accountable and federal funding reduced to states if their prescribing exceeds a certain level.

“If every primary care doctor in this country followed the CDC guideline, you would cut by more than half, instantly, the number of new people becoming addicted,” said Mendell, whose son committed suicide after years of struggle with addiction. “We need a goal for the country. Divide it up by 50 states, a proper goal developed by the CDC, and then we need to publicize it and hold people accountable. Just like you would do in any business.”

Patrick Kennedy is a member of Shatterproof's board of advisors, and Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) is a member of its "opioid overdose advisory board."

No pain patients or pain management experts testified before the commission or were appointed to the panel.

Watch below for a replay of today's meeting: