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N.C. governor warns Obamacare repeal will hurt battle against opioid addiction

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, chairman of the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, peaks at the beginning of the first meeting of the commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis, Friday, June 16, 2017, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House complex in Washington. From left are , Dr. Bertha K. Madras, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in addiction biology, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Christie, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, and former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, chairman of the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, peaks at the beginning of the first meeting of the commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis, Friday, June 16, 2017, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House complex in Washington. From left are , Dr. Bertha K. Madras, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in addiction biology, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Christie, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, and former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy. AP

States’ efforts to combat a deadly opioid addiction epidemic will be severely harmed if congressional Republicans and the Trump administration kill former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Friday.

Cooper, a Democrat, made the dire prediction as a member of President Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which held its first meeting Friday.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that what is happening over in Congress regarding issues on health care matters to this issue,” Cooper said in his opening remarks at the meeting, held at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building near the White House. “If we make it...more expensive for people to get health care coverage, it’s going to make this crisis worse.”

Later, at North Carolina’s lobbying office four blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Cooper said he “had to address the elephant in the room.”

“I’m pleased to be part of this task force, but when this administration approves of a health care bill like was just passed in the United States House of Representatives, it makes you wonder because that legislation takes health care away from a lot of people and will hurt the fight against opioid addiction,” he said.

The Republican-controlled Senate is working on compromise legislation after the GOP's Obamacare replacement bill, the American Health Care Act, narrowly passed the House of Representatives last month.

Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee’s steering committee, accused Cooper of using the opioid crisis “to try and score political points.”

“Over the past year, I have worked in bipartisan fashion to help pass 18 bills addressing the opioid epidemic, including new tools for law enforcement, a pilot program to help babies born with complications, and $1 billion in state grants,” Pittenger said Friday.

“Seventy-eight Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, and yet Governor Cooper wants to use their tragedy to try and score political points.”

The House Republicans’ health care overhaul proposal, which have faced widespread criticism from doctors, hospitals and patient advocacy groups, would leave 23 million people uninsured and slash Medicaid funding by $834 billion over 10 years, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported last month.

The bill also cuts subsidies that help individuals buy marketplace coverage and makes it easier for states to weaken or eliminate valuable consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act.

North Carolina is at the epicenter of the opioid battle. The state experienced a 73 percent surge in opioid-related deaths between 2005 and 2015, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The powerful prescription pain killers were responsible for 1,100 deaths in the state in 2015, up from 642 a decade before, according to state figures.

In Mecklenburg County, 61 people suffered opioid-related deaths in 2015, up from 25 a decade ago.

North Carolina received a $31 million grant last month to help fight the epidemic in the Tar Heel State. The money comes from the 21st Century Cures Act, which is funding $1 billion in grants to states across the country.

The North Carolina grant will be used to help treat an estimated 3,000 people over two years and purchase 6,500 naloxone kits, which are used by first responders to treat opioid overdoses.

“We have realized that we cannot arrest are way out of this problem,” Cooper said Friday. “We need help from the federal government...fighting drug kingpins and traffickers. But at the addiction level, we need treatment and prevention.”

Trump last month named Cooper to his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis along with Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Bertha K. Madras, a former deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The president created the commission through an executive order in March. Its mission, according to the White House, is to "study ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis, which was responsible for more than 50,000 deaths in 2015 and caused families and communities across America to endure significant pain and suffering."

"I made a promise to the American people to take action to keep drugs from pouring into our country and to help those who have been so badly affected by them," Trump said when announcing the commission’s formation.

Trump’s administration has received bipartisan criticism for its strategy for dealing with the opioid crisis and combating drug abuse.

Democrats and Republicans howled when the White House floated the idea of a 95 percent budget cut for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a leading office in the fight against opioid abuse, in Trump’s $4.1 trillion fiscal 2018 budget plan.

The administration retreated from the idea when it released its detailed budget proposal last month. Still, critics contend that significant cuts proposed by Trump for agencies and programs like the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and Medicaid would hurt the opioid epidemic battle.

“Medicaid is the largest national payer for addiction and mental health treatment – there’s no larger payer,” Joe Parks, medical director for the National Council for Behavioral Health and a former Missouri Medicaid director told the commission Friday. “To successfully fight back these epidemics of addiction and suicide, Medicaid must continue as an entitlement.”

McClatchy’s Tony Pugh and Lesley Clark contributed to this story.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

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