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Former Governors Speak about Opioid Epidemic at School of Public Health

The Kresge Building at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Kresge Building at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. By Megan M. Ross
By Luke W. Vrotsos, Crimson Staff Writer

Five former governors spoke about state responses to the opioid epidemic at a roundtable discussion at the Harvard School of Public Health Thursday.

The panel featured Steve Beshear of Kentucky, Jim Douglas of Vermont, Jack Markell of Delaware, Ted Strickland of Ohio, and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, who also served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration. Douglas is a Republican; the other four are Democrats.

Strickland was unable to attend in person, so he participated remotely.

Throughout the event, the panelists discussed their experiences working to stymie the opioid epidemic at the state and federal levels. Proposed solutions included residential treatment centers, needle exchanges, and combating the overprescription of opioids.

Sebelius criticized the Trump administration, specifically mentioning financial support for opioid treatment as an area where federal leadership has fallen short.

“Ideally we would have an administration that would cease trying to take payment for treatment away from millions of people who desperately need it, stop trying to roll back Medicaid expansion,” she said.

She also said federal officials are prosecuting perpetrators of non-violent drug crimes too aggressively.

“The Justice Department continues to believe this is a criminal justice issue—‘lock ’em up’—which has been a proven failure and cost a lot of money,” Sebelius said.

The governors also shared personal anecdotes about the opioid epidemic in their states.

Strickland said that last December he picked up a hitchhiker on the highway who was walking to his drug-treatment appointment.

“I’ve thought about that man a lot. No car, no job, prison record, an addiction, walking to drug treatment on a very cold morning. And that gives me hope,” he said. “I may never see him again, but I hope that he is a success story because I know he’s trying.”

The event was held at the School of Public Health’s Leadership Studio, and was organized in cooperation with Reuters. Reuters Boston Bureau Chief Scott Malone moderated the event.

Lisa Mirowitz, executive producer and director of the Leadership Studio, said that this event differed from past opioid-focused programming because it focused on treatment programs, a choice inspired by recent polling from Robert J. Blendon, a professor at the School of Public Health.

Blendon’s surveys indicated 34 percent of Americans do not think there is a treatment for prescription-painkiller abuse that is effective in the long term, and 49 percent oppose requiring insurers to provide more extensive coverage of treatment programs.

“The public really does not understand if treatment is worthwhile. They’re confused about treatment,” Mirowitz said.

Christina Roache, associate director for production and web at the studio, said the governors provided valuable information on the opioid issue.

She said that they had “a unique perspective into the tools that can be used to address the issue and some of the challenges that they’ve had to grapple with.”

The roundtable comes as Harvard faculty across the Longwood Medical Area are stepping up their research and education efforts in response to the opioid epidemic, which claims an average of 115 lives every day in the United States.

—Staff writer Luke W. Vrotsos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at luke_vrotsos.

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