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White House Convenes Summit On Opioids

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The White House is convening a summit today on the nation's opioid crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that overdoses kill an average of 115 Americans every day. And the rising addiction rate is blamed for reducing life expectancy, also costing the U.S. economy more than a trillion dollars. Jessica Hulsey Nickel will be attending the White House meeting today. She's president and CEO of the Addiction Policy Forum, and she joins us in our studios in Washington. Welcome.

JESSICA HULSEY NICKEL: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: This is personal for you, right? I wanted to just start off by establishing that. I mean, I know that you had parents who suffered from heroin addiction during your childhood.

NICKEL: Yes. I lost my - both my parents to this disease. And I've been working on this issue ever since so we can change what happens to families when this disease hits your family. We have a long way to go. We're losing 174 people to overdoses every single day. That's like a plane crashing every day in America.

GREENE: I guess that's even more than the 115 I was citing. So you might have some different statistics that suggests this might be even worse. So what are you hoping to hear from this meeting at the White House? I mean, what can happen at a summit like this that would make you feel like things are moving in the right direction?

NICKEL: Well, I do think that it's good that the White House is convening the summit. They're focusing on opioids and drawing attention to this issue, which is so needed. However, we're really hoping that we can hear a plan for a comprehensive response. Addiction is a complicated disease and requires a comprehensive response from prevention to treatment to making sure that we're seeing innovative responses and medicines that are implemented. And we need to move away from knee-jerk responses that focus just on law enforcement or criminal justice or one particular program and really make sure we're coming together to build a plan that's going to work. We, you know, submitted - the Addiction Policy Forum and our families - we submitted 63 recommendations to the opioid commission, and we're really hoping that we see a plan that starts to be put in place to make those a reality.

GREENE: Can I ask you - I mean, the pharmaceutical industry obviously has an interest in all of this, that their money and influence are in a lot of places. I know they even support your organization. What is - how do you deal with that? Do you ever feel like you have to keep the focus of the solutions you're advocating narrow because of pharma's influence here?

NICKEL: You know, our programs and our mission is set by our families and patients, and we think it's incredibly important to have everyone at the table, including the white lab coats and the folks with R&D budgets that can help us with new medications, new technologies and better ways to treat this disease. You don't solve a disease without having sort of your scientists and researchers at the table. We think it's an incredibly important step, and we're really proud of the work that we're doing with industry partners to make sure that we have, you know, more tools in our toolbox.

GREENE: This is - we just have a few seconds left - but an optimistic moment for you with the summit today. Are you feeling like this is going in the right direction?

NICKEL: I hope so. We're a little worried that we want to make sure that we're reiterating to the White House that this is not just a law enforcement focus, that you don't - you can't incarcerate your way out of the disease of addiction. We learned that lesson a long time ago. My family learned that lesson when my mom was put in prison. But we are hopeful that they are moving in the right direction and, you know, focusing on such an important issue.

GREENE: We'll be talking much more about it. Jessica Hulsey Nickel, thanks so much.

NICKEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.