As it approached the deadline for its final report, President Donald Trump’s opioid commission heard from researchers Wednesday who said effective treatment exists but is often underused or not available as an option.
The comments came during the third meeting of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, created by executive order in March as a way to map out a strategy for emerging from the public health crisis.
The meeting came a day after the Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting director, Chuck Rosenberg, emailed staff to say he plans to resign by Sunday, the same day the commission’s report was originally due for release. But Christie announced Wednesday to extend the commission’s deadline by one month, submitting the report on Nov. 1.
The commission’s interim report, asked the Trump administration to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, among other recommendations. Trump said he intended to declare a national emergency, but has yet to do so.
Advocates and health officials are increasingly worried about the nation’s need for clear direction as the opioid crisis continues.
In 2016, as many as 64,000 people died due to drug overdose, according to the latest data analysis from the New York Times. Opioid abuse, including of heroin and fentanyl, largely propel this trend.
Many Americans struggling with opioid use were introduced to addiction through a doctor’s prescription and have now “been trapped into a rewiring of their brains,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
And while innovation in treatment is something that’s needed to stem this problem, Collins said insurers must cover these therapies so they’re affordable.
A host of public health experts and a growing number of states say the pharmaceutical industry played a big role in perpetuating the opioid crisis, including marketing and selling highly addictive prescription opioids to the general public for decades. In March, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a top-ranking Democrat from Missouri, launched an investigation into how pharmaceutical companies profited off of opioids and released initial findings earlier this month. Several states have also sued drug makers for their role in the crisis.
Commissioner and Harvard Medical School professor Bertha Madras also raised concerns about opioids being insufficiently tested and asked how companies that urge fast-tracked alternative treatments to opioids will avoid introducing similarly devastating therapies.
During the meeting, Stephen Ubl, president of PhRMA, the nation’s leading lobbying organization for pharmaceutical companies, praised the commission and said researchers at companies his lobbying group represents “wake up every day with the sole goal of improving the human condition.”
He also said physicians should receive annual training about how and when to safely prescribe opioids.
Biomedical researcher and physician George Savage said it’s great that business and government are working to rein in use of opioids, but he argued that some people really need these medications, and regulators must strike the right balance.
He said his San Francisco-based company, Proteus Digital Health, is developing a “digital opioid” to make sure the right dose of the right medicine reaches the right patient for the proper duration. The therapy is ingestible and especially designed for cancer patients or people receiving medication-assisted treatment for addiction.
Patrick Kennedy, a commissioner and former U.S. representative from Rhode Island, said Americans must unite around the issue of addiction, treatment and recovery.
“Advocacy is anemic. There’s no one out there shaking the trees” as the United States saw during the HIV crisis, Kennedy said.