• Text Resize A A A
  • Print Print
  • Share Share on facebook Share on twitter Share

Opioids Code-a-Thon Remarks

Eric D. Hargan
HHS Opioid Symposium and Code-a-Thon
December 6, 2017
Washington, DC

Data informs our larger understanding of the [opioid] crisis as a public health problem: how the challenges of pain and addiction interact with mental health, employment, the criminal justice system, and the human services we provide, like child welfare and foster care. With an epidemic that is constantly changing, new research is always needed to understand the effects it’s having on our society.

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us here today.

Thank you, Administrator [Seema] Verma, for joining us and for your commitment at CMS to America’s great public health challenges and to harnessing data to combat them.

I also want to particularly thank Bruce Greenstein, our chief technology officer, and his whole office for the work they have done in putting this event together. Thank you especially to everyone who’s traveled here to D.C. from across the country—you have helped make this event special, and we’re glad you joined us.

And thank you to the hundreds of people tuning in across the country via livestream, for joining us as well.

These two days of work and discussion are an unprecedented effort to bring together the best data we have and the best minds we can find to derive new insights about the opioid crisis we face.

Today’s symposium in particular is a great chance for some very talented people from across the country to trade ideas and learn from each other about how we can be using data in this fight.

I want to highlight the context in which we’re holding this gathering and the code-a-thon a little later today.

As Bruce and Mona [Siddiqui, HHS chief data officer] have mentioned, this is just part of a larger effort we have going on here at HHS to do a better job of harnessing the immense amount of data we have, while protecting the privacy and security of that information.

It’s fitting that one of the first public results of this effort is focused on the opioid crisis, because the crisis is such a priority for our department.

But on all the public health challenges we face, I want to emphasize that we are fully committed to leveraging the data we have and to working with outside stakeholders to maximize the usefulness of this data and save lives.

The broader HHS effort, called “Get Better Insights from Better Data,” is part of another, larger strategic vision for our department called ReImagine HHS.

ReImagine HHS is our response to President Trump’s call for each cabinet department to come up with a plan for reforming its functions and better accomplishing its core mission.

We have taken this opportunity at HHS to step back, look at how our department works on a day-to-day basis, and think about how we can more effectively and efficiently accomplish the critical mission we have here.

One way we can do that is by better understanding our work through better data.

We expect this effort, led by Bruce and Mona, to pay dividends in work across the department.

Just as we want to improve our use of data across HHS, we are also intent on increasing the focus and coordination of all of our efforts on the opioid crisis.

It is such a threat to the three goals we have as a department, of building healthier people, stronger communities, and a safer country.

We are engaged with the opioid crisis all across the department, in every operating division — in healthcare, in human services, in public health, and in science.

All of that is coordinated through a five-point strategy that we unveiled earlier this year under President Trump.

One of the five points, I’m happy to note to this crowd, is better data on the epidemic.

The other four points of the five are: better pain management, better research into pain and addiction, better targeting of overdose-reversing drugs, and better prevention, treatment, and recovery services.

But better data is much more than just 20 percent of our strategy—see, I’m a lawyer, but I did a little math there.

Our entire strategy is based in the best science we have about where this crisis is occurring, what populations it’s hurting, and what interventions work best. So I want to talk a little about how data informs each point of the strategy.

First, the “better data” point. HHS plays a significant role in the core work of improving public health surveillance to improve data and reporting on the opioid epidemic itself.

On Monday, I visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where CMS Administrator Verma, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, and I were briefed on the latest work the CDC is doing.

CDC, undoubtedly the world’s premier public health agency, has been devoted to empowering state and local governments, who gather much of the key data about this crisis, to do so as quickly as they can, and to derive the best insights possible from that data.

One example of this is a CDC product we heard a little about from Dr. Fitzgerald: CDC’s vulnerability maps, which use a county-level risk model to highlight counties and regions of the country that may be especially vulnerable to HIV and Hepatitis C outbreaks due to injection drug use.

Happily, we know state and local governments have already used this project to inform new prevention strategies to prevent infections and save lives.

The idea for the vulnerability maps actually came out of CDC’s involvement in the tragic outbreak of HIV in Scott County, Indiana, which our now-surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Adams, helped tackle as Indiana’s health commissioner.

We look forward to ongoing advances in our data work and to continuing the progress we make in the next two days to make that data more accessible and usable to everyone engaged in this fight.

Second, better pain management. With CMS being the largest payer for healthcare services in America, it’s crucial that we are identifying and covering effective pain care, not pushing doctors toward easy fixes.

That extends beyond CMS, of course, to CDC’s work with prescribing guidelines, NIH’s research into the science of pain, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health’s work in standing up the Pain Management Best Practices Interagency Task Force.

In particular, we already have some sense of what the outcomes are for various kinds of pain care, and what parts of the country see more or less prescribing of opioid and non-opioid alternatives, but we need to understand these issues even better than we do now.

Third, better research into pain and addiction. Data, of course, is the core of much of the scientific work we do at HHS, through places like NIH, FDA, and CDC—where we research, approve, fund, and educate on new treatments for pain and addiction.

But data also informs our larger understanding of the crisis as a public health problem: how the challenges of pain and addiction interact with mental health, employment, the criminal justice system, and the human services we provide, like child welfare and foster care.

With an epidemic that is constantly changing, new research is always needed to understand the effects it’s having on our society.

Fourth, better targeting of overdose-reversing drugs. We all know that overdose-reversing drugs have saved tens of thousands of American lives, and that every single life matters. But we can save even more lives by ensuring that overdose reversers are readily available in places where they’re most needed.

In this space, HHS’s role is to support state and local governments and private actors in providing that targeted access, and we need great data, as fast as possible, to do that.

Better data can also help us understand the effects of various state policies to confront the epidemic, like standing orders for naloxone.

Fifth and last, our strategy emphasizes better prevention, treatment and recovery services. Data here is crucial: Where do we have unmet treatment need, where are the gaps?

With HHS investing hundreds of millions of dollars each year to support prevention, treatment and recovery, we have to have top-quality data to inform decisions about where our resources are most needed.

Top-quality data and analysis can also help inform our support for particular services or interventions, to ensure we’re spending wisely.

Speaking of spending wisely, I was at the White House this past Thursday to receive a very generous donation from President Trump: He has donated his third-quarter salary to the opioids effort at HHS.

Specifically, we’ll be using the money to fund the planning and design of a large-scale public awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of opioid addiction, which the President called for in the opioids speech he gave at the end of October.

HHS is going to be working closely on that effort with the White House, in part because we bring lots of relevant expertise to the table.

CDC has done a great deal of research on what kinds of prevention messages work and how they can be targeted. Just think of the success over decades of their anti-smoking messaging.

Earlier this year, they launched the Rx Awareness Campaign, which highlights individuals who have suffered due to opioid addiction, and that campaign is just the beginning of our efforts on this front.

The advanced technology we have today and the promise of Big Data give us an unprecedented ability to target key audiences and drive awareness and even behavioral change.

Part of what’s special about the code-a-thon that’s getting started later today is that we are bringing together disparate, previously siloed sets of data, many for the first time, alongside some great minds to think about them.

As I said, we are committed to doing our part at HHS, but I also want to note that we appreciate the work that state and local governments, nonprofits and the private sector are already doing on this front.

We are glad to have you here today and we look forward to hearing from you about how we can serve you better on the data front.

Sometimes all this data can get a little impersonal, so I want to end by reminding everyone that this crisis is about people. It’s cutting short the lives of thousands of Americans and it’s affecting so many millions more.

As is the case for many of us, addiction, and opioid addiction in particular, hits home for me and for my family.

I grew up in a small town in southern Illinois called Mounds, about 800 people. It’s a rural farming community, and opioid addiction and substance abuse has plagued families there for decades.

It was years ago, in fact, that I had the first close relative who died after a years-long struggle with prescription opioids.

I’m not sure what would sound crazier to me when I was growing up: that someday I’d be standing in Washington, D.C., about to kick off something called a “code-a-thon” with world-class computer programmers, or that these great minds would be gathered to confront a challenge that we knew well back in Mounds, a drug crisis that spread from coast to coast, and now steals tens of thousands of American lives each year—more than a hundred every day.

What I do know is that I’m tremendously grateful that you all are here and that you are all doing your part. So thank you for your contributions, for your insights, and for your commitment to defeating this challenge.

We at HHS deeply appreciate your work, and we hope that, together, we can help give Americans the tools they need to defeat this crisis in their own communities.

You have the chance to make some real progress on that over the next two days, so let’s get to it.


Content created by Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)
Content last reviewed on December 6, 2017