First lady Melania Trump on Thursday met with first responders, families and treatment advocates at the White House to hear from them about their experiences in the trenches of the deadly opioid epidemic."I'm here today to listen and learn from all of your stories and hope you will feel free to give me your thoughts and opinions on how best I can help," Trump said, sitting in the middle of the table in the White House's State Dining Room.
Trump has made the well-being of children a priority as first lady and attended a key opioid meeting in August. On Thursday, she said she looked forward to working with the opioid commission established by the Trump administration and with others around the table to "teach children about the dangerous consequences of drug abuse."
The epidemic has alarmed public health officials in recent years, as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that 50,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015. Of these deaths, 33,000 were tied to opioids, with a large share of them related to heroin. Addictions often begin when patients who go to doctors for chronic or acute pain and receive a prescription for an opioid such as oxycodone. The prescriptions are driving the epidemic, with many people then turning to the drug's cheaper, more potent alternative, heroin and the even more potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl.
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who led some of the conversation at the round table, said 11 million Americans are now using opioids and 91 people die from such overdoses every day.
"These are not statistics," she said. "These are our children, our nieces and nephews, our friends. This is no longer someone else's kids, someone else's co-worker, someone else's community. Everyone in this country is impacted by drug addiction and by the opioid crisis."
"Too many families know the personal emotional toll of this increasing epidemic," she continued.
Other administration officials who attended included Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is chairman of the president's Opioid Commission.
Three of the guests shared their stories.
Cecilia Brown, whose son, Ryan, died from a heroin overdose in April 2014, said her son was not able to receive treatment because he had been on a waitlist. Prior to that she and her husband, Bobby, spent thousands of dollars on treatment; their son was too old to be on his parents' health insurance plan.
"When he died, he was on a wait list for two programs and had received a Medicaid card just three days before he died, which would have given an opportunity," Brown said.
Brown started an organization called Ryan's Hope to raise awareness about opioid addiction. She also pushed for the passage of the Ryan Brown law, which provides funding for treatment beds.
"We sent him to college to get a degree and he came back with this addiction," she continued. "We said we did not want one more person to die, and that's what drives us to come to speak today."
Daniel Goonan, chief of the Manchester, N.H., fire department, said his department was "on the front lines of this thing." He discussed his "Safe Stations" program, where people who need help can go to the station, which has treated 2,500 people.
Rebecca Crowder is executive director of Lily's Place in West Virginia, which cares for babies who have been exposed to opioids in the womb. The facility also provides drug treatment and job assistance to parents.
"We care for the babies that are born prenatally exposed to drugs," Crowder said. "While we are caring for those babies — while they are going through the withdrawal process — we also work with the families to try to help them get whatever it is they need, whether it be recovery programs, whether it be help with jobs and housing. We try to wrap our arms around the whole family and help them with anything they need while we are taking care of their babies."
President Trump has said that the opioid epidemic is a national emergency, but according to the New York Times the legal paperwork has not been filed. Members of his administration have traveled around the U.S. to meet with families and patients as well as people who are addressing opioid overdoses.
On Wednesday, members of the opioid commission met with members of the pharmaceutical industry to hear about nonaddictive options for managing pain.