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Opioid commission member: Our work is a 'sham'

Story highlights
  • Critics say they have seen no relief to help with the opioid crisis
  • Patrick Kennedy blasts Congress, Trump lack of action

(CNN) The Republican-led Congress has turned the work of the president's opioid commission into a "charade" and a "sham," a member of the panel told CNN.

"Everyone is willing to tolerate the intolerable -- and not do anything about it," said former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who was one of six members appointed to the bipartisan commission in March. "I'm as cynical as I've ever been about this stuff."

President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a 90-day public health emergency in October, but did not make any new funding available. In November the president said he would donate his third quarter salary to the Department of Health and Human Services to help fight the crisis.

Critics say the declaration did virtually nothing to change the status quo and that overdose deaths have continued to mount in the months since. The public health emergency declaration was, in fact, set to expire on January 23, but as the government was headed toward a shut down on Friday, Acting Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan renewed the national public health emergency for another 90 days.

"This and the administration's other efforts to address the epidemic are tantamount to reshuffling chairs on the Titanic," said Kennedy. "The emergency declaration has accomplished little because there's no funding behind it. You can't expect to stem the tide of a public health crisis that is claiming over 64,000 lives per year without putting your money where your mouth is."

CNN sought to catch up with the six members of the opioid commission, including former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who headed the panel, about their views on progress made and what more needs to be done. We also wanted to speak with Kellyanne Conway, the White House's point person on the opioid crisis.

Only Kennedy and Bertha K. Madras, a deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the George W. Bush administration, agreed to speak.

With the recent government shutdown, Kennedy blasted Trump for "playing politics instead of pursuing solutions for issues that impact the lives of Americans."

"For people and families struggling with addiction in this epidemic, it's essentially been a government shutdown from the start," he said.

Kennedy: Trump gave great speech, then did 'nothing'

Kennedy has become a fervent advocate for people with addiction issues, opening up about his own struggles with drugs and alcohol in recent years and pushing for better treatment programs around the nation.

His fiery passion was on display in a wide-ranging 30-minute phone interview with CNN. At one point, he deepened his voice and gave a full-throttled impersonation of Trump, saying the president gave a "great, great speech" in declaring the public health emergency and then did "nothing." Other times, Kennedy grew starkly serious about the gravity of the epidemic and the more than 500,000 lives lost to overdoses since 2000.

"Forget the crumbling infrastructure," Kennedy said, "we're losing this country from the inside out."

He paused. "Now, you're going to ask me how I really feel," he said.

Kennedy blasted Congress for its $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and predicted the GOP-led House and Senate would now focus on the gutting of Medicaid -- a program he said is the "largest provider and best hope to tackle the opioid epidemic." The tax cuts, Kennedy said, would set "this country back further than anything else in our ability to tackle this opioid crisis. Period."

"We're going to lose more money in a year than we could spend in a decade to solve this crisis," he said. "There's just going to be no way they're going to do anything that rises to any level of meaningful effort towards tackling this crisis."

He added, "No way, no how."

Borrowing a signature line from his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, he said, "I just keep thinking there is no profile in courage in that vote. My uncle made it very clear: This country was the place to put the national interest over the party."

"We've got a human addiction tsunami, and we need all hands on deck," he said, adding that instead, Congress has chosen to ignore the reality of the situation.

Asked if he believed the opioid commission's work was all a charade, Kennedy said, "I do. I honestly do. It means nothing if it has no funding to push it forward. ... In the context of this tax bill, this thing's a charade.

"I have to be true to the way I feel: This is essentially a sham."

Little impact on the front lines

The commission officially ended its work on December 1. The commission never received any direct feedback from Trump after it submitted its final report, Madras told CNN.

The president's bipartisan panel offered 56 recommendations to curb the crisis, including setting up nationwide drug courts to help place substance abusers into treatment rather than sending them into the prison system. The report was issued after months of meeting with people on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.

However, since the public health emergency declaration was made in October, many who are dealing with the crisis day in and day out say it's been difficult to tell what, if any, difference it has made.

"I have not seen any effect of the state of emergency in any way," said Dr. Leana Wen, the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. She has testified twice on Capitol Hill for the need for funding.

"If this were a true state of emergency, there would be immediate relief of resources that would directly target the front lines, in areas that are hardest hit. Imagine if this was a natural disaster: There would be immediate relief," she said.

Michael Fraser, the executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the public health emergency declaration brought "visibility" to the issue at a national level, but "there hasn't been a new dollar" added to help aid in the fight.

"If this is really an emergency, we would have seen much more activity," said Fraser, whose group represents public health agencies and departments across the country.

When asked what actions the administration has taken since the declaration was made, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy provided a list of 30 actions that the Trump Administration has taken to respond to the opioid crisis. Just four of these measures were enacted after the declaration, and even those were already on-going efforts.

Traditionally, the Office of National Drug Control Policy coordinates the White House's drug policies, but it has been without a permanent director since Trump came into office.

In fact, one of the actions that the administration lists is $485 million in grants, funding that was approved under the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

On January 10, Trump did sign a law that would give US Customs and Border Protection additional screening devices to better detect illicit drugs such as fentanyl that are being smuggled through the border. At the signing, the president said he actually had a solution to the crisis.

"There is an answer. I think I actually know the answer, but I'm not sure the country is ready for it yet," he said, before looking around at some of the lawmakers. "Does anybody know what I mean? I think so."

However, neither he nor the White House elaborated what that solution entailed.

Fraser said there isn't a knowledge barrier when it comes to dealing with the opioid crisis, but a resources barrier.

"We know what works," he said. "Do we know everything? Absolutely not. But, we would be a lot closer (to managing the crisis) if we were doing a lot more." And that "more" requires money.

However, Fraser says Congress has been complicit in not allocating resources. "Where is their attention? It was on tax reform."

'Taken down by the enemy from within'

Madras, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, said she was pleased the White House took the initiative to draw so much attention to the opioid epidemic and that it was good the government now has a key point person, in Kellyanne Conway, with daily access to the president.

"That is really a very significant issue, bringing the implementation directly into the White House, as opposed to having intra-agency meetings," she said. "Having been in government 10 years ago or so, I know how difficult it is to be able to generate change without having executive leadership behind you."

Kennedy said Trump never met individually with all of the commission members -- a fact confirmed by Madras. But Madras said because of Conway's constant presence, "we never felt we were not being listened to."

Madras said the Office of National Drug Control Policy would be following up on the recommendations over the next year and coming up with a list of what's been done on each recommendation. She said Conway "had taken the lead with regard to organizing all the various federal agencies mentioned and listed in the commission report." Madras also said she hoped the private sector, along with state and local agencies, would step up and adhere to the commission's recommendations.

"All in all, it's been a very positive experience," she said. "It has made a tremendous impact."

Asked about Kennedy's dire assessment, she applauded him for his "passion and depth he brings to the problem," but she stopped short of his critique, saying it was premature for her to comment until she sees how much money is allotted for the opioid crisis.

"What I feel very strongly about -- and this is something tearing at my heart -- is how partisan this whole issue is, with regard to taxes, with regard to budgets," Madras said. "I really think the opioid crisis shouldn't be bipartisan; it should be non-partisan."

"What we should do is come to the table -- everyone in an appropriations role -- and decide what it's going to cost to alleviate the problem."

Until then, Kennedy said he finds it distressing that the country's lawmakers seem oblivious to the crisis.

"We're going to be taken down by the enemy from within, and it's our inability to see the handwriting on the wall, to see the depths of despair and to know that we need a gut-check in our country to really understand what does this mean for us as a nation and what are we going to do to address it," he said. "We're in an existential crisis right now."

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