Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday announced that pollster Kellyanne Conway, 50, counselor to President Donald Trump, would oversee White House efforts to combat the opioid overdose epidemic.
More than 64,000 people died in the US of drug overdoses in 2016, largely from opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and prescription painkillers. Trump declared a national public health emergency over the crisis in October, and calls have emerged for an opioids "czar" to lead crisis response efforts in the last year.
Looks like Conway has the job. Trump has asked her "to coordinate and lead the effort from the White House," Sessions said at a news conference in remarks that went beyond prepared ones from the event.
"It is a positive sign. She is a high-profile figure in the administration, showing the administration takes this seriously," opioid policy expert Andrew Kolodny of Brandeis University told BuzzFeed News.
But Kolodny noted the administration still hasn't named someone to head its Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), or released a strategy to combat the crisis (one is promised in February), or requested any money from Congress to fill the depleted national public health emergency fund — now down to $66,000 — to pay for its health emergency declaration.
"Stemming overdose deaths will take a broad interagency approach led by someone with a singular focus and extensive knowledge of the drivers of — and solutions to — the epidemic," former ONDCP official Regina LaBelle told BuzzFeed News by email. "Therefore, a Senate confirmed Director of National Drug Control Policy should lead this effort."
"It’s a national emergency — let’s treat it like one," she said.
At a congressional hearing in Baltimore on Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who headed a presidential report panel on the opioid crisis, had called the clamor for a US opioids czar "overblown." The steps needed to counter the overdose crisis are well understood, he said, starting with limiting overprescriptions of painkillers, cutting fentanyl exports from China, and providing the overdose remedy naloxone to communities; a czar, he added, isn't needed to kick-start this effort.
Christie's commission had released a final report earlier this month adding 56 recommendations for combating the opioids crisis to nine earlier ones from an interim report released this summer. Conway sat in on many of the panel's meetings and has been heavily involved in crafting the administration's response to the crisis. Sessions touted Conway's communication skills at the news conference, perhaps signaling an administration push for public service announcements aimed at changing public attitudes toward opioid addiction.
"The buck stops with the president," Christie had told the House Oversight Committee headed by Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, in his remarks on an opioids czar. "Congress also has to step up as well."
At the news conference on Wednesday, Sessions also announced $12 million in grants to state and local police departments, and the opening of a new Drug Enforcement Agency field office in Louisville, Kentucky, to combat illicit opioid use in Appalachia. He also ordered each US attorney's office to name an opioid coordinator.
"I know that this crisis is daunting — the death rates are stunning — and it can be discouraging," Sessions said. "But we will turn the tide."