The NCSL Blog


By Ed Smith

Confronting the opioid crisis and helping states tackle the myriad problems associated with the epidemic is the top clinical priority for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to Jane Norton, director of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs for the department. 

Norton was the lead-off speaker at a session on fixing the health care system at NCSL’s  Legislative Summit in Boston.

“This is deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history,” she said, noting that more than 52,000 died in 2015 drug overdoses and final figures for 2016 will likely exceed 59,000. “It is the leading cause of death for adults under 50.”

A successful approach to the opioid epidemic involves working with state and local government officials, Norton said in a nod to the audience of state legislators, legislative staff and others concerned about health care issues at the state level.

“We’ve been inspired and encouraged by what states are doing to help turn the tide,” she said.

Other clinical priorities including addressing mental health needs, preventing childhood obesity and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, especially for those on Medicare.

In a back-and-forth with legislators, Norton discussed efforts by HHS to quickly address 1332 waivers, a program that allows states to customize their health care systems under the umbrella of the Affordable Care Act. While one legislator indicated the process was working much faster than under the previous administration, there also was concern about the uncertainty in the insurance market because of the various health care laws that have been advanced to replace Obamacare.

“We’re down to one provider and if we don’t get our request for a 1332 waiver we will have no provider for individual policies,” said Representative Dave Heaton (R) of Iowa.

Heaton also pointed to the status of Medicaid as a major concern for state lawmakers.

“We need everyone to remember this program has significant different cost drivers. In Iowa, seniors and the disabled represent 25 percent of enrollment but consume 70 percent of funding,” Heaton said. “If it’s a block grant or per capita allotment it will be difficult to maintain the level of services to these needy Americans.”

Norton, a former state legislator and lieutenant governor in Colorado, said she and HHS Secretary Tom Price are committed to listening to state concerns.

“This administration and our team at HHS,” she said, “have immense respect for what you’re doing.”

Ed Smith is NCSL’s director of digital communications.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.