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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper On The Opioid Crisis


Today, more than a hundred Americans will die from opioid abuse. And it will happen again the day after. And it will happen again the day after that.

President Trump has talked a lot about the severity of the opioid crisis in this country. He did so again yesterday from Bedminster, N.J.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nobody is safe from this epidemic that threatens young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural communities. Everybody is threatened. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

MARTIN: A White House commission on opioid abuse told Trump that he should declare a public health emergency. The president decided not to do that. The secretary for health and human services, Tom Price, said the federal government doesn't need to declare an emergency in order to find money to combat the crisis.

To get the state-level view on this, we are joined now by the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper. He signed a bill into law this past spring which tries to tackle the opioid epidemic in his state. Governor, thanks so much for being here.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Yeah, my pleasure.

MARTIN: After President Trump spoke, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said that the president is, quote, "fully engaged" on a tragedy that is crossing the country. Is that the experience in your state? Are you feeling the president's engagement?

HICKENLOOPER: Well, we haven't seen that just because of the issues around, you know, Medicaid coverage. The Medicaid expansion we did here several years ago allowed 450,000 Coloradans to have access to substance abuse treatment who really hadn't had it before. So the Senate bills that the president was supporting kind of flew in the face of really responding to the epidemic.

MARTIN: Because so much of the substance abuse programs designed to combat the opioid crisis come through Medicaid, and the president was supporting a health care bill that would have rolled those back.

HICKENLOOPER: Exactly, there's a conflict there. But - and we've been working on this for a number of years. I shared a task force with the National Governors Association in 2012 and 2013 to - we created in Colorado a consortium of prescription drug abuse prevention. We now have 400 stakeholders all over the state really focusing on this issue because it's, you know - up until we got this consortium in place, it was just growing every year out of control.

MARTIN: So your state has been in this fight for a few years now. What role do you see for the federal government? What assistance do you want that would be effective coming from the federal government?

HICKENLOOPER: Well, we certainly need their partnership. And whenever you're tackling something like this, it really is a national issue. It's in every state.

We need their partnership both - not just in terms of, you know, law enforcement but in terms of drug treatment - making sure that there are the resources. I mean, opioid addiction is one of the few things that we really do have - medication-assisted treatments are the most effective, but they're also the hardest to come by.

MARTIN: You mentioned law enforcement. That really is where the president has put a lot of emphasis, talking about the fact that prosecutions have been down. He wants to see those rise - prosecutions for drug users and those who traffic those drugs. Do you think that would help?

HICKENLOOPER: Yeah, I think it - certainly in terms of heavy drugs like heroin. I mean they're out of control now. And we're seeing a flood of cheap heroin coming across from Mexico and other parts in the world that, you know, in Colorado, at least, we've gotten our deaths from prescription opioids. They're no longer increasing over - from 2014 to 2016, they actually went down about 10 percent. But in heroin, I mean they were up 30 percent in one year from 2015 to 2016. So federal government could be a great partner in prosecuting heavy drugs.

MARTIN: Lastly, I want to ask you - several state attorneys general have filed lawsuits against the prescription drug industry - manufacturers and distributors of opioids. Is that something your state is going to do?

HICKENLOOPER: We're certainly going to look at it. You remember Howard Dean - you know, when he was a doctor before he ever ran for president and when he was governor of Vermont, he talked about how if we liberalized the use of opioids, it would be - it would be like opening Pandora's Box. We've seen his predictions come true. His predictions have come true. So we need to respond in the strongest possible way.

MARTIN: Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper, thanks so much.

HICKENLOOPER: You bet. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.