Kennedy: Opioid crisis a ‘make or break’ moment

Cape Code Times

By: K.C. Myers

Former congressman outlines pending report by presidential commission.

HYANNISPORT — As Patrick J. Kennedy II prepares to deliver recommendations Nov. 1 to President Donald Trump on how to fight addiction, he is dealing not only with what he calls a “defining” national issue but one that is intensely personal.

Kennedy, the younger son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, is one of six members of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. He is also a child of alcoholics, he says, and in recovery himself.

As he wrote in his 2015 memoir, “A Common Struggle,” Kennedy, 50, spent much of his life contending with bipolar disorder and alcohol and opioid addiction, while passing laws on mental health and addiction coverage as a congressman from Rhode Island from 1995 to 2011.

After he left Congress, he worked to manage his dual disorders, entered into long-term recovery, got married and wrote “A Common Struggle,” which raised the generational addiction and mental health issues he said his family had worked for years to keep secret.

Although some family members have denounced and denied portions of the book, Kennedy has stood by his story.

“We need to come up with a way to talk about it within our families,” he said Monday in an interview at the family compound in Hyannisport. “It’s not easy to break the silence.”

How will the president and Congress pay attention, he asked, if no one talks about it?

Kennedy said his maternal grandmother and his mother, Joan Kennedy, battled debilitating depression and alcoholism. His father, whom he worshiped, struggled with alcoholism and possibly post-traumatic stress after losing two brothers to assassinations, among other tragedies, Kennedy wrote in “A Common Struggle.”

“They say addiction runs in families; it galloped through mine,” he said.

Other members of the president’s commission are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and McLean Hospital researcher and Harvard Medical School professor Bertha Madras.

Madras joined Kennedy at the compound to discuss their report.

One highlight will be the recommendation that Trump declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency, Kennedy said. Trump told reporters Monday he would make that official declaration next week, after pledging to do so in August.

Just as the Federal Emergency Management Agency swoops in after a hurricane, this crisis needs everyone on board, Kennedy said. Counselors and doctors require more training in addiction treatment, so the Department of Labor needs to be involved. There should be prevention lessons aimed at children, so the Department of Education must contribute. Packages from China containing deadly fentanyl are infiltrating the borders, so the U.S. Postal Service and law enforcement play enormous roles, he said.

“We need a comprehensive approach,” he said.

Using Google, Madras said, she found six websites offering to sell her U-47700, a new, unnamed high-potency opioid.

Health coverage for mental health and addiction treatments are key to fighting the epidemic, the two said.

Kennedy said the so-called “skinny plans” allowed by Trump’s executive order on health care would be a disaster.

“You need real health coverage” to tackle addiction and the mental illness that affects an estimated 40 percent of people with the disease, according to the preliminary report issued by the commission in July.

It is critical these patients enter the health care system to manage their chronic diseases as early as possible, rather than at the crisis point of needing costly residential treatment, Kennedy said.

In the big picture, health care must undergo reforms to treat diseases of the brain and the body equally, Madras said.

That is why Kennedy, as a congressman, fought for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. This requires insurance companies to cover treatment for those disorders just as they would medical issues such as heart disease. But nearly a decade later, the law is not enforced, and patients still need to battle insurance companies to get coverage, Kennedy said.

One exception is New York, where the governor signed a law making it difficult for insurers to dodge parity, he said.

Trump should take the commission’s recommendations seriously, Kennedy said.

“This is one chance the president has to remake his presidency,” he said. “It affects every family, including his.” Trump’s older brother, Fred Jr., died at 42 of alcoholism-related illness.

It deeply affects those who voted for Trump in rural areas, he said. Misuse of prescription narcotics and illegal opiates is largely responsible for a record number of U.S. overdose deaths — estimated at 64,000 in 2016, according to National Center for Health Statistics.

“This would make or break his presidency,” Kennedy said. “There is no doubt this epidemic continues to get worse. If a 15 percent reduction in taxes is more important than a 15 percent reduction in the suicide and overdose rates then that says something. … When the history books are written this one will be the defining issue.”

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“We stand on the doorstep to make momentous progress in advancing the cause of this new civil rights struggle started by the work of President Kennedy over 50 years ago.”
— Patrick J. Kennedy
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