White House hosts opioid summit as controversies loom

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The White House is hosting a summit on opioids today as lawmakers and activists ramp up calls for the Trump administration to do more to address the crisis.

The summit comes more than four months after President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, though the decision faced criticism as it stopped short of a national emergency declaration that would have made an additional surge of federal funds available to address treatment and recovery efforts.

First lady Melania Trump delivered opening remarks at the summit, remarking on her travels in recent months with the president across the country, in which she visited hospitals and treatment centers, where she’s been briefed by those directly impacted by the crisis.

Addressing the crowd of more than 200 participants from across the nation, the first lady read a letter sent to her from a mother who lost her son in an opioid-related death.

“Sadly she’s not alone in her grief and we need to change that,” Melania Trump said.

The White House has pointed to recent positive movement in trying to rally more resources to combat the epidemic, including the president’s recently budget proposal that called for $3 billion in new funding in 2018 and $10 billion in new funding in 2019 for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to combat the opioid crisis. The president also recently nominated Jim Carroll as a new drug czar to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), though lawmakers have recently criticized the White House for scaling back the ONDCP’s role in coordinating the administration’s response to the opioid crisis.

However, recent turbulence and controversies across the administration have the potential to overshadow some of the more substantive discussions the wide range of participants plan to have.

Senior counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway will moderate several panels with Cabinet secretaries, including several who have drawn fire in recent weeks for negative headlines related to the management of their agencies.

Veterans’ Affairs Secretary David Shulkin will participate in a panel on prevention, treatment and recovery with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. Shulkin recently apologized to VA staff after the agency’s Office of the Inspector General alleged Shulkin improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets during a work trip to London. Carson, meanwhile, has also sought to beat back criticism after it was revealed earlier this week his agency spent more than $31,000 on a new table and chairs for the dining room adjacent to Carson’s office. Carson has since asked HUD to cancel the order.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will also speak on a later panel, amid tension with the president following a tweet from Trump Thursday that described Sessions’ actions as “disgraceful.”

In a remarkable move, Sessions released a statement appearing to push back against the president.

“As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor,” Sessions said. “And this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”

Later on Thursday, Trump did not answer shouted questions by ABC News as to whether he continued to have confidence in Sessions.

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