Bevin helps lead governors’ push to fight opioids; McConnell pressures new FDA boss on issue before his confirmation

The epidemic of opioid abuse, which is running strong in Kentucky, got a good deal of attention in Washington last week, in Congress, at the White House and at a meeting of governors.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont “led an effort to press states to take action,” Robert Pear reports for The New York Times.

“Alarmed at an epidemic of drug-overdose deaths, the National Governors Association decided over the weekend to devise treatment protocols to reduce the use of opioid painkillers. The guidelines are likely to include numerical limits on prescriptions, or other restrictions,” Pear writes. “Governors said they had decided to act because they had not received enough help from doctors or from drug companies that make the addictive prescription pain medications.”

Bevin said the root of the problem is economic, and that the solution must involve “the people who develop, sell, profit from and approve these drugs.” He also said that if the problem is to be taken seriously, the nation must consider whether the drugs should even be prescribed. For an NGA video of the 80-minute discussion, click here.

The governors took their concerns to a Monday meeting with President Obama, who turned the tables later in the week by saying that “a lack of access to basic health care, particularly in rural areas, has contributed to the increase in opioid addiction and deaths,” Mary Ellen McIntire writes for Morning Consult.

“I think short-term, the opioid problem really has more to do with the fact that a lot of people don’t have basic health care,” Obama said at a White House meeting Thursday on the Precision Medicine Initiative.

“Obama’s comments came a few hours after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate will be working to more forward on an opioid bill in the coming days,” McIntire notes.

“Overdose deaths in Kentucky were responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in 2014 alone. This is a devastatingly high number, among the highest rates in the nation,” McConnell noted in a Senate floor speech.

FDA Administrator Robert Califf and Sen. Mitch McConnell

McConnell noted that he expressed his concerns to Robert Califf, a longtime Duke University cardiologist and researcher whom the Senate confirmed as the next leader of the Food and Drug Administration last week after a long delay.

“I was encouraged by Dr. Califf’s recognition that the opioid epidemic is a serious problem and the FDA must do a better job of addressing it,” McConnell said. “I will continue to hold him accountable to lead the FDA in a new direction to help prevent dependence and abuse of prescription opioids.”

Califf said in an interview with Brady Dennis of The Washington Post, “A fundamental issue here is over-prescribing of opioids. I think our [drug] labels are pretty clear and strong, but for reasons that are well known, doctors have gotten in the habit of prescribing more opioids than they should. That’s not an issue FDA can control, but we have a voice in it, and we’re going to work with other federal agencies to help that happen. We’re also aware that there are 10 to 12 million Americans with severe, chronic pain that needs treatment. So, we’ve got to work with NIH and the industry to develop non-addictive, more effective treatments. And we have to work with [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] and payers to create practice environments where you can actually use non-opioid, behavioral treatments. It turns out, that’s complicated and it’s hard to do. 

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