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Patrick J. Kennedy calls America’s opioid crisis the ‘biggest public health epidemic of our time’

Former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, who has struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism, says the country is in “deep, deep denial” about the opioid crisis.

“If this were an infectious disease, we’d be throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at it right now,” Kennedy told The Washington Post in a live interview on Tuesday.

Former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, who has personal experience with overcoming addiction, argues that the suicide rate in America is under reported. “We have no clue what the true suicide rate, overdose rate” is in America, Kennedy says. (Video: Washington Post Live, Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Washington Post Live)

Kennedy, the author of “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction,” and a member on the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, said he does not support the use of block grants, which are part of the Republican spending package, to help states fund addiction treatment and mental health programs for low-income individuals.

“They’re using grants as a way of really doing what they don’t want to vote on doing, and that’s sharply cutting the amount of money that goes to treatment. So, they say they’re giving the same amount but they’re letting states to do the dirty work,” Kennedy told the Washington Post’s Mary Jordan. “People with addiction and mental illness are the most unpopular of all constituencies so they’re the easiest people to drop by the wayside.”

Kennedy also drew a connection between overdoses and suicides, saying that “we have no clue what the true suicide rate” is in the United States.

“You cannot divorce the suicide rate from the opiate overdose rate,” he said.

Kennedy offered his perspective during a Washington Post Live program on America’s opioid crisis featuring doctors, health care experts and elected officials.

DeGette, Markey, Walden share perspectives from the states

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), said opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts are “three times worse than the national rate,” noting that about 2,000 people in his state died as a result of addiction in 2016.

Massachusetts, he said, “has been a predictor of this catastrophe spreading inextricably, inevitably, across the country.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), describes the opioid crisis in his state of Massachusetts where the number of opioid-related deaths last year was three-times the national average. (Video: Washington Post Live, Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Washington Post Live)

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, represents a rural district in Eastern Oregon, where he said he has seen many families and communities affected by the crisis. He attributes a lot of Oregon’s addiction problems to the over prescribing of opioids to relieve pain.

“We’re also seeing a dramatic increase in 65 and older that are being treated as inpatients in hospitals because of this addiction,” Walden said. “It’s affecting every age group.”

And Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said her state is facing similar challenges.

“What all three of us have recognized, is this really does seem to have exploded on the scene,” she said. “We’ve heard stories about addiction for some years and cautions about overuse of opioids. But these stories are just exploding.”

The view from the medical and research community

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, Co-Director of Opioid Policy Research at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, said the opioid addiction epidemic was misrepresented from the start as a problem that only affects “so-called drug abusers.”

“Opioids are not safe and effective treatments for the vast majority of people suffering with chronic pain,” he said, adding: “It’s not an abuse crisis. It’s an addiction epidemic.”

Dr. Leana Wen, Health Commissioner of Baltimore City, agreed that this crisis is different from other public health crises, particularly due to “huge stigma around treatment.”

Dr. Leana Wen, Health Commissioner of Baltimore City, argues that there is a stigma surrounding opioid addiction, unlike other types of diseases and sickness. Wen says that only one in ten people get the help they need when it comes to opioid addiction. (Video: Washington Post Live)

“We don’t say to someone with diabetes, ‘well why are you still on insulin, why can’t you get off your insulin and isn’t lifestyle changes, shouldn’t that be enough?’” she said in an interview with the Post’s Lenny Bernstein. “And yet we make those assumptions about people with the disease of addiction all the time.”

Anne Pritchett, Vice President of Research and Policy at PhRMA, the association that represents large pharmaceutical manufacturers, said many factors contribute to the nationwide crisis, notably the over prescription of opioids.

“There are enough prescription opioids being prescribed so that every person in America has a 30-day supply,” Pritchett said, according to research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “So, clearly we have a problem.”

Post health and medicine reporter, Lenny Bernstein, asked Pritchett about the case of West Virginia — a state that was flooded with 780 million opioids over a five-year period.

“Everyone in the supply chain has a role and a responsibility to behave ethically and legally and to ensure that only as much medication as needed is being provided,” Pritchett acknowledged. “Clearly there is a disconnect in the supply chain.”