Calling Chris Christie! White House Opioid Crisis Commission Misses Due Date for Preliminary Report

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s commission on the opioid crisis has missed its first deadline.

The newly created panel met for the first time on June 16, just 11 days before the White House’s ambitious due date for a preliminary report meant to outline federal strategies to curb the epidemic.

An executive order that established the commission had set a 90-day deadline for the completion of that document. The deadline will come and go without a report being filed, and a commission teleconference originally scheduled for Monday evening has been rescheduled for July 17.

“It’s been pushed back for a couple of weeks,” commission member Bertha Madras, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital who studies the biology of addiction, told STAT. “We need more time because it’s a massive task.”

Madras said the group has been working diligently on its report, compiling a list of federal resources and programs available to help stem the epidemic. The panel was still crafting its recommendations, she said, but overall the commission’s work was going very well.

“Right now, we’re going to have more recommendations than anyone anticipated,” she said.

Madras was named to the commission just last month, along with its chair, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Roy Cooper of North Carolina. The fifth member, former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, is a treatment advocate who has spoken openly about his own struggle with drug abuse.

“It seemed to have been put together on a fairly brief turnaround,” said Dr. Joe Parks, the medical director of the National Council for Behavioral Health, of the first meeting, during which he delivered a brief presentation. “I was left with the impression that we were part of an initial broad information-gathering — I was given very broad opportunity to give whatever input I pleased.”

Outside experts have been largely impressed by the commission and its direction, if not the pace of work.

“I had a good hour with Governor Christie, and I have to say he was extremely impressive, extremely knowledgeable,” said Gary Mendell, who as the CEO of the addiction treatment advocacy group Shatterproof was invited to testify before the commission at its first meeting. “He seemed very focused on wanting to do the right thing.”

But Mendell and others who appeared at the first hearing were adamant that the pending health care legislation would be a major setback for the recovery community if it became law.

At the same time, Mendell said, while those invited to testify implored the White House not to pursue legislation that could hamper treatment access, they recognized that Christie’s commission is a non-legislative body with little influence over Republicans on the Hill.

Despite forceful rhetoric on the issue from Trump while on the campaign trail, the White House has struggled to avoid contradictions between the commission’s work and its own agenda.

In April, Trump celebrated the House’s passage of a bill that detractors say would sharply reduce access to addiction treatment in two ways: a roughly $800 billion cut in planned Medicaid spending over the coming decade, and deregulation that could allow insurers in some states not to cover some basic health services, including addiction treatment.

In May, a leaked memo suggested the Trump administration would seek to effectively eliminate the White House’s drug control policy office, reducing its funding from $388 million to $24 million. The administration backtracked on the cuts following bipartisan outrage.

And on Monday, top Trump lieutenant Kellyanne Conway found herself facing demands for an apology after she suggested the two requisite tools for ending the crisis were funding and “a four-letter word called will.”

When asked about the deadline, the White House forwarded questions to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which forwarded questions to Christie’s office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The commission has not changed its goal of submitting a final report to Trump by Oct. 1.

Andrew Joseph contributed reporting.

An earlier version of this story stated that Trump’s draft budget envisioned effectively eliminating the White House’s drug control policy office. The proposal was made in a memo that was leaked, before the budget proposal was released.


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