Kevin Hassett and Joel Zinberg of the Council of Economic Advisers speak on the role of drug prices in the opioid epidemic.
At 3:00 PM EDT, Kevin Hassett, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and Joel Zinberg, a CEA healthcare specialist and general surgeon at Mount Sinai, spoke on the CEA’s report “The Role of Opioid Prices in the Evolving Opioid Crisis.”
Hassett summarized the effects of the opioid epidemic on American communities, including an estimated economic cost of half a trillion dollars, prompting the need for policymakers to understand the causes of the crisis. According to Hassett, the epidemic struck in two major waves.
The period from 2001 to 2010 saw the rise of prescription opioid misuse. This came about due to aggressive marketing by drug manufacturers, prescription guidelines for doctors that heavily encouraged the use of painkillers, and reduced prices of opioids. The latter stemmed in part from government subsidies that had the unintended side effect of making addictive drugs more accessible.
The second wave took place from 2010 to 2016, though Hassett said that it can be considered as ongoing. After the government took action on prescription opioid misuse, users turned to narcotics like heroin, leading to an increase in overdoses. The crisis worsened after the widespread importation of low-cost, high-potency Chinese fentanyl starting in 2013.
In response to the crisis, the Trump administration is adopting a three-pronged approach based on reducing demand, reducing supply, and treating those who are addicted to opioids. Hassett credited the administration’s policies with a decrease in overdose deaths and high-dose prescriptions since 2017.
When asked about law enforcement approaches to the opioid crisis, Hassett declined to go into detail as it was outside of his area of expertise, but he brought up the indictment of the Rochester Drug Cooperative and said that it was an issue that the administration cares about.
On the contradictory policy intentions of alleviating the opioid crisis while also lowering drug prices, Hassett said, “When you have a problem this complex… you need a lot of different policies to address it.” He mentioned that the priority should be on making it harder to buy large quantities of opioids and obtain government subsidies for them.
Zinberg added that opioids are important for treating pain, “but they’re also prone to abuse, and they’re prone to making people physically addicted and psychologically addicted,” referring to it as a “balancing act.” In terms of specific policies, he mentioned the monitoring of opioid distribution and the fact that guidelines have changed so that doctors may use their own judgment rather than being pressured to overprescribe opioids.