Former President Bill Clinton visits Johns Hopkins, urges action on opioid crisis

Former President Bill Clinton said in a speech Monday at the Johns Hopkins University that everyone can play a part in solving the killer opioid epidemic gripping the nation.

Every person or group needs to pick something like stocking the overdose reversal drug naloxone, tackling stigma or calling for the expansion of treatment, Clinton said before directing the audience to a report released Monday with a list of recommendations compiled by the Clinton Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The response so far has been lacking, said Clinton, citing the more than 64,000 overdose deaths logged nationally last year, including more than 2,000 in Maryland — most linked to opioids including prescription painkillers and illegal versions such as heroin and fentanyl.

“We’re finally acting like grown ups and treating this like a public health problem and not a criminal justice problem,” which Clinton said was the good news. “The bad news is the response has been woefully inadequate. What we’re here today to do is figure out what to do next.”

Clinton pointed to many of the recommendations in the report — “The Opioid Epidemic, From Evidence to Impact” — and then moderated one of two panels of experts who reiterated the need for more attention and resources for addiction, drug abuse and overdoses.

The report began as a collaboration between the Bloomberg School and the Clinton Foundation in 2014 aimed at addressing the staggering rates of deaths from opioids, which have only grown each year.

The 45-page report offers specific actions that should be taken by public health officials at every level of government.

Among other things, it calls for seeking local policy changes reflecting national guidelines on reducing the number of prescriptions written for opioid painkillers; securing funding for better packaging to prevent diversion of drugs; expanding take-back programs for unused drugs; increasing surveillance of opioid misuse and disorders; boosting funding for treatment in high-use areas; developing easier-to-use naloxone formulations; establishing supervised consumption spaces; mandating participation in prescription drug monitoring programs that track individual patients’ pills; and changing language to avoid stigmatization and increasing public education.

Most of the recommendations are not new, and Clinton praised those already working on them in their own corners of the country. But he said more people and organizations need to get involved and those efforts need coordination. Clinton’s foundation, he said, plans to take on some of that.

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner and a panelist on Monday, already has made naloxone a central element of the city’s response, becoming among the first cities in the nation to issue a blanket prescription for the drug and then training thousands of residents to use it.

Still, Wen said there is much to do, including changing the culture of prescribing “a pill for every pain,” often blamed for leading people into addiction to those painkillers or heroin. On the other side of the issue, she also said there not only needs to be an expansion of treatment slots but an expansion of efforts to link people to treatment when they visit a hospital, needle exchange van or other point in the health system.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who has led efforts to address drug prices, said he’s working on expanding access to naloxone and health care generally. That includes protecting Medicaid, which funds a disproportionate share of treatment but has become a target of Republican budget cutters.

Cummings and others also said warnings to children about using drugs just might steer a few away, in much the same way that Mothers Against Drunk Driving turned the tide on drinking and driving.

Other panelists from research, educational, faith, treatment and law enforcement backgrounds agreed that they all need to do something if the opioid burden is to be reduced.

“We should not doubt the power of collective action,” said Dr. G. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Hopkins’ Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness.

Later Monday, Clinton attended an event in Dundalk’s Turner Station, taking part in a ribbon-cutting for outdoor signs at the Sollers Point Library playground. The signs encourage parents and caregivers to talk to children to build their vocabulary, and are part of a “Talking is Teaching” program supported by The Clinton Foundation.

Baltimore County Public Library officials said they hope the visit will draw attention to efforts to engage young readers. The former president told about 100 people who gathered that parents and caregivers who talk, read and sing with children help them “become everything they ought to be.”

Greater Dundalk has turned from a strong Democratic area to a community that voted Republican in the last two elections — it is represented by Republicans at the county and state level. But Clinton encountered appreciation in the historically African-American Turner Station community. Lifelong resident Olivia Lomax, a retired federal worker, said she was thrilled to have the former president visit.

Clinton snipped extra pieces of ribbon with oversized scissors and handed them to children.

“Did you get one? Did you get one?” he asked.

He drew laughter with the line: “I’m looking at all these kids who are thinking, ‘When are all of these old people going to shut up so I can go play on the playground?’"

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mercohn

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