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Mayor Steve Williams of Huntington, West Virginia speaks with Axios' Mike Allen. Photo: Lawrence Jackson for Axios

Wednesday morning, Axios' Mike Allen hosted a series of conversations on health care's biggest challenges, focusing on the opioid epidemic and pain crisis in the U.S.

The big picture from Axios' Bob Herman, Policymakers want to find other ways to treat pain — given the destruction that addictive opioid pills have caused — and many companies sit on the other side of the table selling opioid alternatives, with the hope of getting higher government pay.

Dr. Vanila Singh, Chief Medical Officer, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health
Dr. Vanila Singh in conversation with Axios' Mike Allen. Photo: Lawrence Jackson for Axios

Dr. Singh, who serves as the Chairperson for the Pain Management Inter-Agency Task Force, emphasized that many Americans are affected by pain, "50 million people in the U.S. are affected by chronic daily pain — that's a staggering number."

She shared that stigma is the greatest barrier to care. "Patients fell a sense of weakness, like they've somehow failed their family."

Dr. Singh's pain task force is focusing on ensuring non-opioid pain management measures get coverage — a priority at HHS.

Mayor Steve Williams, Huntington, West Virginia

Mayor Williams of Huntington, a town raked by opioid addiction, told Mike Allen that opioids are only one part of a larger addiction epidemic — what he believes to be the greatest existential threat facing the U.S.

He called for dedicated research and funding for the addiction epidemic, "We have no problem creating institutes to fight cancer or Alzheimer's — we need to have truly aggressive academic research into fighting addiction."

Mayor Steve Williams in conversation with Axios' Mike Allen. Photo: Lawrence Jackson for Axios

Mayor Williams highlighted the success of his new SAMHSA-funded quick response team. "We've found that the quick response team enables us to get 30% of individuals we speak to into treatment and that overdoes are down 40% year over year."

Senator Joe Manchin, West Virginia
Senator Joe Manchin talks health care with Axios' Mike Allen. Photo: Lawrence Jackson for Axios

Senator Manchin, Founder of the Senate Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse, shared details of his 'penny tax' proposal with Mike Allen. "Pay me one penny per milligram of opioids you produce, and I'll take that money and direct it to treatment centers."

He said that pharmaceutical companies may believe they're putting out pills to provide a health remedy, when in reality it's solely for business.

When asked broadly about health care in the U.S., Senator Manchin said about ACA implementation: "We gave people the most valued gift in the world — a healthcare card — and never gave them any instruction on how to use it."

Senator Bill Cassidy, Louisiana

Senator Cassidy, Founder of the Greater Baton Rouge Community Clinic, a resource that provides care for the working uninsured, focused the conversation on patients, and their lack of choice. He is currently working on 8-10 bipartisan bills to give power back to the patient: "One solution is price transparency."

Senator Bill Cassidy and Mike Allen. Photo: Lawrence Jackson for Axios

Cassidy called for nuance in the way we discuss the opioid epidemic.

The addict. The chronic, but stable patient. And the person who is hooked because of an over-prescription. Those are the three types of situations we have to address separately.

He did highlight the work Congress has done, noting that the number of prescriptions for opioids is going down. He hopes for bipartisan support in addressing the illicit drugs that are filling the gap that fewer opioid prescriptions created.

Thank you Eli Lilly for sponsoring this event.

Go deeper

Neera Tanden withdraws nomination for Office of Management and Budget director

Neera Tanden testifying before the Senate Budget Committee in Washington, D.C., in February 2021. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Neera Tanden withdrew her name from nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget after several senators voiced opposition and concern about her qualifications and past combative tweets, President Biden announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: Tanden’s decision to pull her nomination marks Biden's first setback in filling out his Cabinet with a thin Democratic majority in the Senate.

What's ahead for the newest female CEOs

Jane Fraser (L) and Rosalind Brewer. Photos: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images; Rodrigo Capote/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The number of women at the helm of America’s biggest companies pales in comparison to men, but is newly growing — and their tasks are huge.

What's going on: Jane Fraser took over at Citigroup this week, the first woman to ever lead a major U.S. bank. Rosalind Brewer will take the reins at Walgreens in the coming weeks (March 15) — a company that's been run by white men for more than a century.

3 hours ago - Health

Biden says U.S. will have enough vaccines for 300 million adults by end of May

President Biden. Photo: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden on Tuesday said that ramped-up coronavirus vaccine production will provide enough doses for 300 million Americans by the end May.

Why it matters: That's two months sooner than Biden's previous promise of enough vaccines for all American adults by the end of July.