President Donald Trump vowed Wednesday to increase federal efforts to confront opioid addiction as his administration created a commission to study ways to expand treatment programs across the nation.
In a meeting with recovering addicts and advocates at the White House, the president said opioid and heroin addiction had become "a crippling problem" and he repeatedly said he was frustrated the issue hadn't received more attention.
"Drug cartels have spread their deadly industry across our nation, and the availability of cheap narcotics, some of it comes in cheaper than candy, has devastated our communities," said Trump, who also raised the issue during his campaign last year. "Nobody really wants to talk about it."
There has been considerable bipartisan attention paid to the issue in recent years in Washington, including legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last summer that created new grant programs for treatment and prevention.
But disagreement remains about funding those and other initiatives. Maryland received $10 million for treatment as part of a massive health research law Congress approved last year. Gov. Larry Hogan also has committed to increasing state spending on the problem.
"Any attention to the public health emergency of opioid addiction is important; hearing the president talk about addressing the opioid crisis is important," said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner.
"But we need to move beyond rhetoric," she said. "We know what works when it comes to treating the disease of addiction. We now need the resources to be able to combat this epidemic."
The spike in overdose deaths nationwide has prompted bipartisan interest in Congress, particularly as the problem has spread beyond cities like Baltimore and into rural areas, many of which are represented by Republicans. Many people switch to heroin after becoming addicted to pain killers because the illegal drug is cheaper and easier to access.
Experts say the rising death toll has been driven by fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid mixed with heroin.
Drug overdoses kill more Marylanders and Americans than car crashes and homicides. Final state data for 2016 is expected to show that some 2,000 people died after overdosing on heroin or other opiates.
Democrats remained skeptical of the administration's commitment to the issue, noting that the health care legislation supported by Trump and Republican leaders this month would have eliminated a requirement that Medicaid cover mental health and substance abuse. That legislation was pulled off the House floor last week after Republicans failed to secure enough votes for it.
The Trump administration separately called for spending $500 million more on the issue in its proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning in October, but it is unclear whether that money already had been set aside by the Obama administration.
"Opioid addiction is devastating communities all over Maryland and around the country," said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who helped shepherd a bipartisan bill on addiction through Congress last year. "But President Trump's recent health care proposal would have taken away substance abuse treatment from millions of Americans. If the president and congressional Republicans truly want to address the opioid crisis, they need to take a hard look at the health care and budget priorities they have embraced."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a Hogan ally who ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination last year before endorsing him — is expected to head the new commission. Christie attended the White House meeting Wednesday, and described addiction as "a disease that can be treated."
Vanessa Vitolo, a New Jersey woman, told the president her addiction stemmed from an injury for which she was prescribed painkillers. She eventually switched to heroin to satisfy her addiction and wound up homeless before enrolling in a long-term treatment facility.
"You have no feelings, and you're a shell, and it takes over your whole life," Vitolo told the president. "There is hope and there is a tomorrow, and there is a day after that. You just have to fight for it."
White House press secretary Sean Spicer demurred on questions about when the commission's recommendations would be due.
"We've gotten really good at law enforcement," Spicer said. "But the question is, how do we focus on the treatment, how do we focus on the prevention, how do we look at things that happened in the past to deter drug addiction from starting in the first place?"