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Congressional committee discusses opioid crisis in Baltimore

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‘We have the reports, we’ve had years of talk, now it’s time for action,’ U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings told a congressional committee hearing in Baltimore Tuesday to discuss the nation’s opioid crisis. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record.)

Sitting in an auditorium at Johns Hopkins Hospital filled with medical professionals, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie assigned blame for the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis.

He didn’t blame drug dealers on the corners of cities like Baltimore or Trenton. He blamed the doctors and pharmaceutical companies represented by the people sitting in front of him.

Christie, the chairman of President Donald Trump’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, said that four out of five heroin addictions began with an opioid prescription.

Christie recommended continuing education for doctors on prescription painkillers, in the same way lawyers must complete continuing education every year, as well as educating future health care providers while they are in school.

“We are not educating our future doctors, nurses and dentists about the dangers of these drugs,” he said.

Christie’s recommendations came at a field hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at Johns Hopkins Tuesday.

Health care providers were not Christie’s only target at the hearing. He also blamed the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance industry and said they could be key pieces in recovering from the opioid crisis.

He has recommended that the National Institutes of Health work with the pharmaceutical industry to develop both more treatments for the disease of addiction and to work harder to create non-addictive painkillers.

“We need NIH to be the accelerant to moving them forward,” Christie said.

For insurers, Christie wants to see them offer more treatment for addiction in their plans. And if they do not, he wants Congress to enable the Department of Labor to go after insurance companies that do not provide the same coverage as they would for other diseases.

He said that based on his conversations and personal relationship with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, he believes Acosta would aggressively go after insurers that are not providing parity of care.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, head of a presidential commission that has examined the opioids epidemic in the U.S., told a congressional hearing in Baltimore Tuesday that medical professionals need to be educated on how to prevent addiction. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record.)

But many of the initiatives from Christie’s commission would require funding, something that is not readily available. Based on the commission’s recommendation, Trump declared a public health emergency last month, allowing the Department of Health and Human Services to direct funds to help address the crisis.

But the public health emergency fund only contains around $66,000, Christie said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, in introducing the committee, also called on the federal government to provide more funding for the crisis.

“(The opioid crisis) constantly evolves and so must our efforts to fight it,” he said. “We have got to have federal funding, and I would say this is the most important problem facing our country.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the oversight committee, also called for more action from Congress and the president.

“We have the reports, we’ve had years of talk, now it’s time for action,” he said. “(The people) are looking to the president and the Congress.”

After 64,000 deaths across the nation last year — more than American casualties in the wars in Vietnam and Iraq combined, Cummings noted — and 1,172 in Maryland during the first half of this year, the urgency for funding has increased.

Christie compared the death toll of the opioid crisis to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He noted that the rate of deaths in the opioid crisis would be like a new 9/11 every two-and-a-half weeks.

Christie asked what the government would pay to stop such terrorist attacks from happening and why that funding has not been directed to this crisis.

It is the stigma, he said, answering his own question. Christie said he will know the crisis is being treated with urgency when that stigma has been reduced.

“Where are the marches?” he asked, recalling the AIDS marches of the 1980s. “I think we will see that we have begun to remove the stigma of this disease when the people impacted are willing to show their faces and march. … I don’t want people to be stigmatized anymore for this.”


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