ATLANTA—On March 29, President Barack Obama—in stark contrast to his more traditional placement behind a podium or the desk of the Oval Office—sat on a panel at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta. He joined Baltimore City Health Commissioner and emergency department physician Leana Wen, MD; Crystal Oertle, a young mother recovering from heroin addiction; and President and CEO of Young People in Recovery Justin Riley, himself recovering from substance abuse.
“My hope is that where I show up, the cameras do, too, and that will help put a greater spotlight on how we can work together to solve this problem,” Obama said—over a clatter of camera shutters—to a room full of clinicians, researchers, state and local leaders, advocates, and members of the press. Through the panel, moderated by CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD, Obama hoped to turn the cameras on the harrowing stories of his fellow panelists.
During the discussion that ran 1 hour and 15 minutes, Obama leaned in and listened as Oertle and Riley recounted their individual battles with addiction. “When I’m listening to Crystal, I’m thinking, ‘What a powerful story.’ I want to make sure that all the other Crystals out there—who are ready to make a change—aren’t waiting 3 months, 6 months [to get treatment].”
In an effort to increase access to treatment, Obama detailed several new federal initiatives. “All the providers, I want to make sure that they are getting the resources and the reimbursement—whether it’s through third-party insurance or Medicare or Medicaid—in order for them to be able to do right by [people like] Crystal.”
Obama and his fellow panelists emphasized the need for addiction to be treated like a disease, rather than a crime. “It’s great to hear the president say ‘the disease of addiction,’” Oertle said. “That’s wonderful, but there is still stigma.”
Though his Secret Service stood in rigid formation for the duration of the event, Obama brought the candor and ease of being in his 8th year in office. He stated that addiction is seen more as a crime than a disease because of its disproportionate impact on minority and poor people. “I’m going to be blunt,” he said. “I hope people don’t mind. Your last year in office, you just get a little loose.”