Trump officials tout fight against drug abuse amid cut

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Trump administration officials visiting Michigan on Tuesday championed opioid abuse prevention efforts and touted the president’s “unquestionable commitment” to reversing the national epidemic despite questions over potential budget cuts.

A budget memo obtained last week by CBS News suggested Republican President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to slash funding for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy by 95 percent. Critics fear the reduction would undermine efforts to prevent prescription drug and opioid overdoses.

But Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the proposed cut obscures the “big picture,” telling reporters the administration is increasing spending by more than $700 million an attempt to tackle the opioid crisis.

“Through the Office of Management and Budget, the department and the White House, we’re working to make sure those resources are in the place where they can have the greatest amount of effect, the greatest influence brought to bear,” Price said.

“The president’s commitment to this is absolutely unquestionable. He understands the challenge we have across the nation.”

Price took questions during a mid-day press conference in Lansing, where he was joined by White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

The Trump administration officials were in town to kick off an “opioid listening session” tour. They met earlier Tuesday with state policymakers, advocates, first responders and other organizations involved in the fight against prescription pain-killer abuse.

Conway said Trump was personally touched by stories of opioid abuse he heard on the campaign trail in 2016. He signed an executive order last month creating a presidential commission on combatting drug addiction and the opioid crisis that is chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was not present at the press conference.

“It’s a bipartisan commission tackling what we see as a nonpartisan issue with a bipartisan solution,” Conway said. “The more we hear from people across the country, we recognize that no state has been spared, and no demographic group has been untouched by this issue.”

Michigan experienced a 13.3 percent increase in drug overdose death rates from 2014 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state was in the top 15 nationally for the overdose death rate at 20.4 deaths per 100,000 people with heroin and prescription opiod deaths making up a significant share of the mortalities.

The Department of Health and Human Services last month announced $485 million in grants to help states fight Opiod abuse, including $16.4 million for Michigan.

But the administration’s proposed budget cut for the Office of National Drug Control Policy has generated criticism on both sides of the aisle.

The plan would eliminate funding for the Drug-Free Communities program created in 1997 through bipartisan legislation backed by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak.

Levin and Portman wrote Office of Management and Budget Director Michael Mulvaney on Tuesday expressing concern, saying the Drug-Free Communities program is a proven and accountable program that reduces substance abuse among young Americans.

The programs are “strongly rooted in local communities, which is a key part of their success,” Levin said in a statement to The Detroit News. “We cannot cut funding that supports and encourages these community connections and a localized response, and expect any real success in combatting drug abuse and the opioid epidemic that is sweeping up far too many.”

Price called the budget a “work in progress,” noting that the House and Senate will have a chance to craft their own spending plans. One of the roles of the new commission, he said, is to “recognize redundancies” and ensure the federal government does not have multiple programs doing the same kinds of things.

“We look forward to working with Sen. Portman and others to make sure we’re not leaving any stone unturned in this great challenge,” said Price, a Michigan native and physician who represented Georgia in Congress.

Nationwide, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 60 percent of those deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid.

“We’re losing a Vietnam veteran every single year in this nation,” Price said, referencing troop losses in a war that spanned more than a decade. “That’s unacceptable to the president … and I know it’s unacceptable to every single American.”

The $16.4 million in grant funding awarded to Michigan last month was part of a 21st Century Cures Act sponsored by Republican Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and signed into law last year by then-President Barack Obama.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon said the state is working to finalize spending plans for that money. He said it could be used in areas like medication assistance treatment and immediate overdose responses.

“Part of it is what can we do to educate the public about this,” Lyon said. “There’s still this perception that prescription drugs are safe. That needs to be addressed.”

Michigan last month launched a new prescription drug monitoring program to track the dispensation of prescription opioid painkillers, and some legislators have proposed making the system mandatory.

The updated online tracking system was among recommendations made in 2015 by a Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force chaired by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

Calley will speak Thursday at a second annual Opioid Abuse and Heroin Overdose Solutions Summit in Livonia hosted by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

“This is something we’ve been passionate about addressing in Michigan for some time,” Snyder said Tuesday. “Because it is a crisis in our country. It’s terrible devastation for individuals, for their families, for all of us. We need to do more.”

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