Trump Says Administration Working On 'Very Very Strong' Policies To Combat Opioids The president made an unexpected appearance at Thursday's White House opioid summit. "It's a problem that's growing," he said of the drug epidemic that has struck the country.
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Trump Says Administration Working On 'Very Very Strong' Policies To Combat Opioids

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Trump Says Administration Working On 'Very Very Strong' Policies To Combat Opioids

Trump Says Administration Working On 'Very Very Strong' Policies To Combat Opioids

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A couple hundred people gathered in the White House's East Room today. They came to get an update on the Trump administration's response to the opioid crisis. President Trump declared the crisis a public health emergency back in October. He dropped in on the session today. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The White House summit on opioids started with remarks from first lady Melania Trump.

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MELANIA TRUMP: Everyone in this room knows that our country is in the middle of the opioid crisis, and I'm so proud of the work that this administration has already done to combat this epidemic. We all know there is still much work to be done.

KEITH: Many in the room had lost family members to addiction or were in recovery themselves. The president announced the emergency declaration last fall and around the same time accepted the detailed recommendations of a commission he assembled to look into the problem. But today's session spent as much time highlighting the challenges as outlining progress and solutions. Alex Azar is the secretary of Health and Human Services.

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ALEX AZAR: One-third of our treatment facilities in America have medically assisted therapy. That's unacceptable. We need - it's a proven, evidence-based approach. And we need to use this funding we're getting to build up more medically assisted treatment facilities.

KEITH: The funding he mentioned was part of the budget deal Congress struck earlier this year. Exactly how the several billion dollars in new funding will be distributed is still to be worked out. When it was time for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to speak, he was fired up.

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JEFF SESSIONS: We're going to make a difference. I just tell you. I believe it. I can sense it already in some of the policies that are ongoing out there.

KEITH: This week, the Justice Department announced it would be joining states that are suing drug manufacturers, something advocates say is both a surprising and positive step. Sessions and several others talked about the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is cheap, easy to transport even through the U.S. mail and in recent years has spiked the overdose death rate. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway is directing the White House response to the opioid crisis.

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KELLYANNE CONWAY: I would imagine most of America suffers from information underload when it comes to fentanyl, for example, which took the lives of 20,000 Americans last year. And if 20,000 Americans were dying every single year from almost anything, we would stop and turn our attention to that immediately.

KEITH: At the very end of the three-hour summit, President Trump made a quick appearance. The president called onto stage a friend of his, Steve Witkoff, who had lost his son to an overdose.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Would you want to just discuss this because we're all among friends here? You know, it's a tough thing to discuss, right? But I was there when he was going through something with a very special boy, right?

STEVE WITKOFF: Yes.

TRUMP: Go ahead.

WITKOFF: I remember the hug you gave me when the world - when I was - when I felt all was lost.

KEITH: Among those in attendance was Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University. He was listening for something more tangible than what he ultimately heard.

ANDREW KOLODNY: They're getting an A-plus for talking about the problem. They're getting an F or a D for responding to the problem. We have yet to see action. We've yet to see a plan. We've yet to see the money that we need to build out a treatment system that doesn't exist yet.

KEITH: And until it's just as easy to get effective treatment as it is to get more drugs, Kolodny says way too many Americans will keep dying. In 2016, more than 42,000 died from opioid-related overdoses. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

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