He gave repeal a try, Obamacare is still standing and now President Donald Trump is flat on his back, or so goes the narrative. He’s not. He is taking on sluggard, ineffective government with oomph and clarity and, as part of that effort, is going after one of the biggest killers in America – the opioid epidemic.
To achieve his ends, Trump has created something called the White House Office of American Innovation that starts with an assemblage of some of the country’s best retired business executives working with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Its purpose, with the aid of high tech, data and the special vigor of these free-enterprise, thrive-or-die masters, will be to reframe federal programs to the point of – hold your breath – getting something done.
A chief issue for the new office, reports The Washington Post, will be to combat the monster opioid pills ravaging our human landscape. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is expected to be in charge of this fight against an immense threat.
How immense? Every segment of society is affected. The drugs are devastating whole communities. They kill more people than either guns or auto accidents. They are a major cause of rising deaths in the less-educated white middle class, and get this: They are therefore a factor in the whole nation now suffering a death rate increase.
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Once upon a more morally observant, more socially tempered time, drug abuse in America was mainly an inner city phenomenon and doctors were extremely prudent in prescribing opioid pain killers. Then, as Christopher Caldwell discusses in First Things magazine, came the libertarians, the marketing-mad pharmacy companies, pill-mill physicians and old-style gangs.
The libertarians snarled that nothing should get in the way of drug consumption, and the pharmaceutical companies, in search of dollars, spent plenty themselves in arguing that it was anti-scientific and cruel not to do everything possible to treat chronic pain. More and more doctors went along with this, some prescribing the pills so lavishly, carelessly and profitably as to make a humane person shudder. These drugs are addictive and, when used too much for too long and yet failing to kill, can still produce zombies where people once stood.
The consumption experience of such drugs as oxycodone, fentanyl or hydrocodone can be euphoric, the withdrawal experience agony and the search for more pills a primary purpose of life. Crime can enter in, and a poor addict will often secure pills through Medicaid, sometimes selling what was purchased with a $3 co-pay for thousands of dollars on the street, says another writer, Nicholas Eberstadt. When addicts reach the end of the prescription road, there’s illegal heroin and gangs proffering that killer drug but with no medical degree to delude the innocent.
Put it all together and you have a third of Americans receiving pain pill prescriptions every year, says Caldwell. Eberstadt, writing in Commentary magazine, points to the record-breaking numbers of prime age men dropping out of the work force and says half of them imbibe opioids daily. Many receive Social Security disability payments to help them survive, and here is the horror: millions of doped-up people spending their lives lying around their homes doing nothing but watching TV or playing with other electronic devices.
The new White House office has a massive job ahead of it, especially when one considers other factors contributing to the opioid epidemic, such things as a slow-growth economy and declines in marriage, religion and our work ethic. We have what some have called a culture of despair among many low-wage or jobless Americans, with suicide and alcohol adding to the death toll.
Trump has promised to cut back on heroin availability through tougher measures against smuggling. Caldwell says reducing supply is the main thing, and there could be more restrictions on prescription drugs. The right rehab programs can be important, and don’t rule out innovation, the grand promise associated with this new White House office.
The writer is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.