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News that presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway will lead the White House’s fight against the opioid epidemic has drawn mixed reactions from experts in the field.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Wednesday that Conway would “coordinate and lead the effort” in the fight against opioid abuse.
The announcement came a month after President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, although not a “national emergency,” which would have allowed the use of funds for disaster relief.
Sessions touted Conway’s close ties to the president as an asset.
“She is exceedingly talented,” he said, “has total access to the president, and I think her appointment represents a very significant commitment from the president himself and his White House team.”
Conway, who has made headlines for her appearances defending the president on news shows, has served as a counselor to the president since the beginning of the administration.
However, she doesn’t have extensive experience in the areas of public health or substance abuse.
Trump’s first nominee for the position, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pennsylvania), withdrew after media outlets reported his close ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
Some praise for the appointment
Despite Conway’s lack of experience, not all the reaction was negative.
Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, said it was important that the leadership role had been filled to streamline the federal response.
“Even in the best of circumstances, there are a lot of moving parts,” Alexander said of the response by the federal government. “I think an appointment of an opioid czar provides an opportunity to better coordinate [the] federal response.”
Alexander pointed out that the opioid commission convened by Trump has now released dozens of recommendations that have yet to be implemented.
“It remains to be seen how well the administration will take the most important of the recommendations that the commission has made and develop actionable implementation plans,” he said. “I don't know if this is a skill set that Kellyanne Conway has or not.”
Opioid overdoses killed an estimated 64,000 people in the United States last year.
Alexander said that indicates more help is desperately needed to combat the epidemic.
“This is a full-time job, and I hope that whoever is serving in this capacity has the bandwidth to devote to it that it requires,” he said.
Dr. Guohua Li, director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said the appointment was a “positive development and a further step forward.”
Li pointed out that, in 2014, former President Barack Obama appointed Ron Klain to coordinate the response to the Ebola outbreak, despite the fact that Klain didn’t have extensive experience in medicine and public health issues.
“He was extremely effective,” Li said. “I think the current appointment is in some ways very similar because the two appointees have very similar professional backgrounds.”
Li explained that both Klain and Conway’s ties to the White House could be key.
“I think that may actually make their appointment more effective,” Li told Healthline.
Some concerns expressed
However, others working to help people with substance abuse were bothered by Conway’s lack of experience in the field.
Daniel Raymond, the deputy director of policy and planning at Harm Reduction Coalition, expressed “concern that the White House did not regard public health experience as a necessary prerequisite for this role.”
“I hope that Kellyanne Conway will be successful, particularly in securing additional funding that the administration has been bafflingly slow to request from Congress,” said Raymond.
The administration has yet to ask Congress for funding to implement these plans to fight the opioid epidemic.
Others weren’t as diplomatic.
One of the harshest was Mike Newall, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He wrote, “a pollster-crony who coined the term ‘alternative facts’ is the first point person for a public health crisis of unmatched proportions, with a higher death rate than the AIDS crisis at its height.”
“Do we need any more proof that saving lives is simply not a priority for this president? No, of course, we don’t,” Newell wrote.
Tom McKay wrote a column for Gizmodo titled, “We Regret to Inform You the White House’s Solution to the Opioid Crisis is Kellyanne Conway.”
Conway has expressed reluctance in the past to allocate significant funds to battle the opioid crisis.
In June, she told ABC News it will take “a four-letter word called ‘will’” to solve the opioid epidemic.
There was even some confusion the day after Sessions’ announcement about exactly what Conway is doing.
White House officials and Conway herself told media outlets there is no “opioid czar” and that Sessions was referring to Conway’s informal role over the months as a policy advisor on the issue.