President Clinton spoke at the School of Public Health on Tuesday to kick off a town hall meeting about the fight against prescription drug abuse.
The former president, who announced just a year ago an effort by the Clinton Foundation to combat prescription drug abuse among college students and others at risk, said he was moved to take action when two young adults he and his wife former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew personally died from drug overdoses.
Clinton was introduced by Michael J. Klag, dean of the School of Public Health, and Patricia Davidson, dean of the School of Nursing. Both emphasized that “legitimate needs” for prescription drugs have to be balanced against the risk of dependency.
The event was co-hosted by the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, an arm of the Clinton Foundation that works to erase health disparities, improve access to care, and reduce the prevalence of preventable illnesses. The conference was to bring experts in the fields of public health, nursing, medicine and behavioral economics together with policy makers for a day and half at the School of Public Health.
A particular focus of the event, entitled “Prescription Drug Abuse: Evidence Informing Action,” was prescription drug abuse by college students. According to the Clinton Foundation, opioid use increased 343 percent and stimulant use increased 93 percent among college students from 1993 to 2005. Opioids include prescription drugs such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and Percocet while the most recognizable stimulants are prescription drugs like Ritalin and Adderall.
According to the School of Public Health, car accidents now result in fewer deaths per year than prescription drug overdoses.
Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and Today Show correspondent, moderated the panel discussion following Clinton’s remarks. The panelists included U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Douglas Hough, a professor of behavioral economics and health at the School of Public Health.
Klobuchar, who cited a statistic that 100 people die each day from prescription drug overdoses, said one of the focuses should be on special drug courts, which are designed to help substance-abusing offenders get treatment. She also criticized the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for being slow to write new rules under legislation she sponsored in 2010 to expand drug take back programs across the country.
Several of the panelists highlighted personal experiences during the discussion. Kennedy, who has been in recovery from substance-abuse disorder for three years, said the health care system had to address what he called the “segregation” of mental and physical health services. Klobuchar briefly talked about her father’s alcoholism and process of recovery.
Hamburg was credited by Clinton and others on the panel for helping to fast track a “new hand-held auto-injector” for Naloxone, a medication that “rapidly reverses the effects of opioid overdose and is the standard treatment for overdose,” according to an early April FDA press release.
The only academic on the panel, Hough was quick to point out that health is an area where people are liable to act irrationally. He said behavioral economics was crucial to understanding why people act the way they do and that the supply of and demand for prescription drugs were issues that had to be addressed.
Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, and Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, were on hand at the town hall meeting as well. Both centers were co-sponsors of the event and are leaders in prescription drug abuse and related public health research.
The audience of mostly faculty and students at the School of Public Health repeatedly applauded the speakers and panelists, especially when the discussion turned to the issue of mental health parity.
“I think it was inspiring for us to listen to speakers like these about issues like this, it made us think that so many lives could be saved and what we can do as researchers,” Anju Ranjit, a graduate student studying public health, said.
Meesha Sharma, another graduate student at the School of Public Health, was similarly impressed.
“I’m glad that people are talking about prescription drug abuse and hearing all the different panelists [talk about] their different approaches to the problem was very eye-opening,” she said.