New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be taking on an advisory role within the White House as chair of a special commission to fight the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States.
The commission will also consist of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and another five members from state governments, law enforcement, and other groups. The panel will assist the Trump administration in identifying federal funding streams that could help address the epidemic, including treatment for those affected, according to STAT. The group is also expected to consider changes to the criminal justice system to support incarcerated opioid addicts after their release from prison, producing policy recommendations to assist those suffering from both prescription and illegal opioids.
"As I've said before addiction is not a moral failing, it is a disease and the more that we talk about it as a disease, treat it as a disease, regulate it as a disease, the more people will finally get the idea that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but it is in fact a sign of strength," Mr. Christie said at a press conference last month.
The number of overdose deaths involving opioids has more than quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the more than 500,000 deaths from drug overdoses between 2000 to 2015 have been linked to opioids, according to CNN.
New Jersey has not been exempted from the spike in opioid deaths, with the state seeing a 16.4 percent increase from 2014 to 2015. In response to the increase, Christie signed last month Senate Bill 3, bipartisan legislation that requires health insurance to cover treatment of substance abuse without any delay while putting a tight, five-day cap on the length of prescriptions for opioid painkillers.
Opioids have been increasingly criticized in recent years for their addictive properties, with over-prescription of the drug group often leading to abuse of illegal substances like heroin. As the Christian Science Monitor's Amanda Hoover previously explained:
For years, opioids were viewed through two distinct lenses: heroin, a dangerous and illicit substance used by drug abusers, and painkillers, medications given to relieve the pain of those who were injured or underwent a surgical procedure, or suffered from chronic pain. Pharmaceutical companies spent the past two decades urging doctors to issue looser, lengthier prescriptions, using targeted marketing campaigns to dismiss fears that the pills could lead to serious addictions and normalizing drugs that were previously doled out sparingly in extreme cases.
But as the number of overdoses and fatalities associated with the drugs rose, more began to see that many of the people who lost their lives in the ongoing epidemic began using prescription drugs for a minor injury and quickly became addicted to the highly potent pills, a revelation that changed the face of addiction.
Many drug policy experts hailed the formation of the new commission as an important step toward solving the public health crisis, which kills an estimated 91 Americans per day. But some criticized the White House for defunding other agencies and programs that could have helped deal with the crisis. A proposed spending plan from the Trump administration, for example, would cut the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's mental health block grant by $100 million this year, severely curtailing the program's potential effectiveness in 2017.
At least one public health expert has also expressed reservations about the makeup of the new task force.
“I'm terrified of what Chris Christie is going to have [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions do at the Justice Department," the expert told Politico, citing Mr. Session's expressed support for hardline punishments against drug abusers.
The Trump administration, however, has said that opioid treatment was a priority for the president. In February, Christie met with President Trump for a White House lunch where the pair discussed ways to fight the epidemic on a "much broader level," according to the governor.