Christie-led opioid commission examines health insurers

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Members of the President’s Commission on Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, chaired by Gov. Chris Christie, met again Friday in Washington to hear testimony from health insurance companies. They’re all waiting for the president’s long-promised federal emergency declaration on the national opioid epidemic.

“We got to stop the deaths, that’s our outcomes right now,” said former Congressman Patrick Kennedy. “There’s not enough people gaining access, so there’s people dying. We ought to be treating this like a FEMA response and getting the necessary medication. If this were ebola, we’d be getting it out there to every practitioner in this country. We’d waive all the rules and say, ‘Let’s get it done!’ and start saving lives.”

“Sixth-four thousand deaths in the U.S. from this crisis — a crisis that has been, in my view, self-inflicted,” said Christie. “I think the president has acknowledged by establishing this commission how extraordinarily important this issue is, and how devastating it is to American families in every state in this country.”

White House representative Kellyanne Conway didn’t mention the emergency declaration during her comments to the commission.

“We believe that everyone is affected by the problem. We’ll be calling upon Americans to join in on the solution,” said Conway.

Leaders of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force — including New Jersey Congressmen Democrat Donald Norcross and Republican Tom MacArthur — also turned up the heat, sending Trump a letter requesting the national emergency declaration that would “provide the federal government additional tools it could use to help communities across the country grapple with this disease.” The declaration went on to say, “We urge you to work with Congress in a bipartisan fashion to advance emergency supplemental funding.”

Trump originally promised to declare the emergency two months ago, and Monday, he set another deadline.

“That is a very, very big statement. It’s a very important step,” Trump said at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden. “And to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done, and it’s time-consuming work. We’re going to be doing it next week, okay?”

Angelo Valente chairs the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and watched Friday’s hearing.

“Unless we take drastic steps like declaring a national emergency, we’re not going to be able to see significant drops in those people that have been impacted,” said Valente.

Insurers and members listed recommendations for the commission’s final report. They include training more doctors and health care providers to treat substance abuse, changing privacy laws so a patient’s addiction history and prescription use can be shared with insurers, establishing national standards and goals for treatment, and defining what “successful” treatment really means.

“Everyone who is involved in this issue is starting to acknowledge that they need to take some responsibility. Whether the insurance companies, whether it’s the medical community, certainly government and we all need to know parents need to be empowered,” said Valente.

“And I wonder, how much more pain the people in this country are willing to accept and not blame us first in foremost in the elected office, the health care community, for not taking this seriously enough. And, in some instances, profiting from it, and health insurance industry, from being the payers,” said Christie.

Christie warned insurers to anticipate a final report that will incorporate many of their recommendations but will also place new demands. That report is due Nov. 1, when families of opioid victims are expected to testify.