WATCH: Trump’s opioid commission launches new look at health crisis

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he never felt uncomfortable telling people about his mother’s lung cancer after she smoked cigarettes for decades. But he wonders if he would have been as open if she instead consumed heroin instead of nicotine.

In the first meeting of President Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Friday, Christie, who chairs the commission, said the group’s biggest challenge is to bring the disease of addiction “out of the shadows and into the light.”

More than 59,000 people died from drug overdoses nationwide in 2016, the New York Times reported last week, based on its own analysis of state health departments, coroners and medical examiners. The numbers come ahead of the official count from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But if true, they represent a 19 percent spike in drug overdose deaths since 2015.

President Trump signed an executive order on March 29 to establish the commission, which is tasked with identifying how the government spends money on fighting opioid addiction, evaluates access to and effectiveness of treatment centers and develop better messaging campaigns and prevention strategies.

Other members of the commission include Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Massachusetts Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Bertha Madras, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a former deputy director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

READ MORE: In the war on heroin, Baltimore drug programs face an uncertain future

At Friday’s meeting, several nonprofit organizations also offered statements about their experiences with the unfolding epidemic.

Joe Parks of the National Council on Behavioral Health said Americans are dying today from two great epidemics: opioid and suicide.

“To fight an epidemic, you must screen for an illness” and make sure those who screen positively have access to effective treatment, Parks said, adding: “Everyone must have health care coverage for addictions and mental illness.”

Mitchell Rosenthal of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence told the commission that few states have the kind of residential treatment needed to effectively combat the opioid epidemic.

“If the commission does nothing else, I would hope your report recommends the expansion of true long-term treatment,” Rosenthal said, adding “Treatment works. We just have to provide it.It will truly save lives rather than today’s practice of postponing death.”

Gary Mendell of Shatterproof told the commission his son’s eight-year-long struggle with opioid use disorder ended on October 20, 2011, when the 25-year-old killed himself — in part because he was ashamed of the stigma associated with the disease of addiction. Mendell said he left his career in business to instead work “to spare families of the devastation of this disease.” He challenged others to join him.

“Working together, Republicans and Democrats, state officials, government officials, businesses, families — we can accomplish this,” Mendell said. “We can save countless lives of those yet to be lost.”

Kelly Clark of the American Society of Addiction Medicine told the commission that to lower deaths resulting from opioid use disorder, that decisionmakers must support evidence-based treatment, evidence-based prevention and workforce development to get help where it’s needed.

“Building more beds won’t stop these deaths,” Clark said. “We must stop doing what doesn’t work and focus our resources on what does.”

The commission is scheduled to submit submit interim recommendations on how to handle the public health crisis by the end of June. A final report is due to the president by Oct. 1, unless the commission asks for more time. A month later, the commission will dissolve unless its term is extended.

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