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Protesters greet U.S. DHHS Secretary Tom Price as he denies cut in drug fight money

  • Dozens of protesters staged a “die-in” outside the governor’s office at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. The group, concerned about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, waited for the arrival of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. (ELLA NILSEN / Monitor staff)

  • Gov. Chris Sununu (left) opens a meeting about the opioid crisis in New Hampshire with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (center) and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway in attendance at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price attends a press conference at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, following a meeting with local officials and community members about the opioid crisis. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dozens of protesters, including Margaret Campbell of West Lebanon, staged a “die-in” outside the governor’s office at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. The group, concerned about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, waited for the arrival of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dozens of protesters staged a "die-in" outside the governor’s office at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. The group, concerned about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, waited for the arrival of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dozens of protesters staged a “die-in” outside the governor’s office at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. The group, concerned about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, waited for the arrival of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price attends a press conference at State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, following a meeting with local officials and community members about the opioid crisis. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Doors to the Executive Council chambers are closed to the press as a meeting about the opioid crisis continues with Gov. Chris Sununu, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and others in attendance at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway speaks during a press conference at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, following a meeting with local officials and community members about the opioid crisis. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway speaks during a press conference at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, following a meeting with local officials and community members about the opioid crisis. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Gov. Chris Sununu (right) opens a meeting about the opioid crisis in New Hampshire with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (center) in attendance at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway leaves a press conference at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, following a meeting with local officials and community members about the opioid crisis. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Rep. Annie Kuster speaks to media following a meeting with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Gov. Chris Sununu, local officials and community members about the opioid crisis. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Jeff Myers attends attends a meeting about the opioid crisis in New Hampshire with Gov. Chris Sununu, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, and others at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Tym Rourke attends attends a meeting about the opioid crisis in New Hampshire with Gov. Chris Sununu, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, and others at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Wednesday, May 10, 2017

At a stop in Concord for a “listening session” on the opioid epidemic, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price pushed back on the notion that there is less money going to fight the drug crisis under the Trump administration, amid news of dramatic budget cuts to the office of the national “drug czar.”

“I think if you look at the entire federal government and the president’s commitment to this challenge, you’ll see that there are actually hundreds of millions of dollars of increase on this issue,” Price said, although he didn’t specify what those increases were.

Outside the press conference, dozens of protesters laid in the State House halls like corpses, meant to symbolize the growing death toll in the state from drug overdoses. Price avoided the protesters by entering the Executive Council chambers through a back door.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday after the closed-door listening session, Price did not deny reports of a 95 percent cut being proposed to the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy. The office coordinates drug policy efforts across the federal government and administers grants to help law enforcement and prevention programs in states including New Hampshire.

“My sense is the president’s desire is to make sure the grant-writing and the granting authority is in the departments, that there isn’t the expertise in the White House itself for that,” Price said.

More than $1 million dollars in federal money flows through the office to fund 13 New Hampshire prevention programs each year. The office also disperses grant money to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which provides training and support to state and local police as they investigate drug dealers.

Price said that while the office may be slashed, the grant money it contains won’t necessarily go away. Rather, he said, it would be distributed among other government agencies.

“It makes sense to me that the departments be the ones evaluating whether the grants from states and elsewhere are appropriate and to make certain we’re getting greater resources than have been given in the past,” he said.

Price and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway first held a listening session with New Hampshire officials, first responders, treatment advocates and Jim and Jeanne Moser, two parents who lost a son to the opioid crisis. 

The meeting between the Trump administration officials and New Hampshire leaders was off-limits to the public. Attendees later said Conway and Price sat quietly, listened and took notes during the discussion.

Afterward, Conway and Price reiterated Trump’s commitment to solving the opioid crisis, and Conway said the president’s concern for the issue was motivated by what he heard in New Hampshire during the 2016 campaign.

“He heard about it all through the campaign, nearly everywhere he went,” Conway said. “But I would say in New Hampshire he heard about it with a fever pitch and with great intensity.”

Congresswoman Annie Kuster, who was at the roundtable, said she was encouraged that nearly every participant told the administration officials about the importance of continuing the expanded Medicaid program, which provides insurance and substance use disorder coverage to tens of thousands of Granite Staters.

That program now hangs in the balance, after Congressional Republicans started making headway on a health care bill that would roll back Medicaid expansion and not require insurers to cover substance use disorder treatment and mental health services.

On Wednesday, Price questioned whether the Medicaid program was the best option for low-income individuals or if there was a better way to provide services. The secretary guaranteed health care for all, but was short on specifics.

“What the president has committed to and what we’re committed to is to make certain every individual has access to the kind of coverage that they want for themselves and for their family,” Price said. He added that if there is a move away from Medicaid, his office is committed to “a seamless transition” to get people onto other insurance plans.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu commended the bill’s passage in the House, but also said he had some “severe reservations” about the details it contains.

“A lot of folks in this state – and I share those concerns – are concerned about making sure that substance use disorder and mental health are included as part of that plan, and most importantly that states have the flexibility,” Sununu said. “The states need that flexibility so we can design those systems as we see fit, and those systems over time can also be nimble.”

However, Sununu said that he believed the Trump administration will let individual states choose what should and shouldn’t be covered by insurance.

“Unlike the previous administration, where Washington was going to implement and control everything, they want the states to be implementers,” he said.

Price, a physician, outlined a multi-pronged approach to fighting the drug crisis, including working on treatment and recovery, addressing the public health aspect of addiction and focusing on pain management.

The Health and Human Services secretary also noted that New Hampshire is set to receive $3 million that was approved by Congress and President Barack Obama last year.

“Money isn’t everything, governor, but money is something,” Price told Sununu.

“The department’s all in, the president’s all in,” Price said. “He has such passion for this issue because he knows the misery and the suffering that has occurred across this land and wants to help solve it.”

New Hampshire is the latest stop on Price and Conway’s listening tour, where they are meeting with local officials across the country about the opioid crisis. He visited West Virginia and Michigan earlier in the week.

After the recent passage of the American Health Care Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, Price and Conway were greeted by dozens of protesters who lay on the cold marble floor outside the governor’s office, their eyes shut for a “die-in.”

Protesters held up signs resembling gravestones including, “Drowned in a high-risk pool,” and “Trump lied, I died.”

Concord resident Louise Spencer, co-founder of the Kent Street Coalition, said she was protesting in the State House because she knows many people who could be affected by a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“This is a concern that’s shared across the state,” Spencer said. “Everybody is impacted by this.”

New Hampshire Democratic legislators also held a press conference outlining their opposition to the health care bill as written, saying that gutting Medicaid and essential health benefits would be devastating.

One of the speakers was Valene Colby, a person in long-term recovery who was able to access drug treatment through expanded Medicaid.

“This Trumpcare bill is going to strip funding for Medicaid and prevent new people from enrolling, regardless of how desperate their need is,” Colby said. “We are one nation under God, and our health care system should reflect our decency as human beings and our responsibility to care for one another. It shouldn’t be to cut taxes or make a profit.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)