Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, has no public health background, a reputation for bending the truth, and a knack for generating government ethics complaints. Yet Ms. Conway does have the ear of the president. She has also studied America’s opioid epidemic in recent months as part of her portfolio. She is not the “opioids czar,” as some news outlets reported this week, but her stepping out as point person on the government response to this public health crisis stirred hope of concrete action from a White House that so far has offered little more than talk.
“The most important thing that Kellyanne Conway will provide is access … but also commitment,” said Bertha Madras, a Harvard Medical School professor and a member of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. “She was at all the meetings, she listened and took copious notes.”
The opioids commission delivered its final report on Nov. 1. It was a thorough, well-researched call for action that added to urgent interim recommendations issued in July that included expanding addiction treatment and prevention, emergency response for overdose victims and law enforcement efforts to stanch the flow of deadly, illegal opioids from abroad. But no clear, comprehensive White House battle plan has emerged so far, nor has any demand to Congress that it make this battle a spending priority. Even the commission’s chairman, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, has decried the Trump administration’s lack of “passion.”
In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Conway said the White House was digesting the commission’s final recommendations and devising a response. Meanwhile, the president is pushing cabinet agencies to identify existing programs “for evaluation and expansion.” She said two states, Utah and New Jersey, have received waivers from federal rules excluding hospitals with more than 16 beds from receiving Medicaid reimbursement for inpatient mental health and addiction treatment, a key recommendation in July. (The recommendation was that all 50 states receive a waiver.) Ms. Conway said that the White House is investigating a “national ad campaign” on abuse prevention and that Mr. Trump is “putting presidential and first lady juice behind this.”
Is he? He certainly sees the opioid epidemic as a media opportunity. On Thursday, he announced that he’d be donating his third-quarter salary (less than $100,000 after — ahem — taxes) to the effort. So can Ms. Conway spur real results? Her to-do list is long, as is the list of things not done.