Kennedy Scion, Former Lawmaker, Bids for Drug Czar (1)

  • Mental health advocate looks to lead drug-control agency
  • Biden to confront growing overdose epidemic amid Covid-19

(Corrects 14th paragraph to reflect that a past director had personal experience with addiction. Adds additional response from Westley Clark in 13th paragraph.)

Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and once the face of his family’s liberal dynasty, is seeking to head President-elect Joe Biden’s drug-control office.

Kennedy, who had his own public struggle with addiction and mental health, is collecting endorsements from key players around Biden in a bid to head the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, often known as the president’s drug czar. The office coordinates drug policies ranging from law enforcement to treatment programs.

Two leaders in the addiction and mental-health field are also considered potential candidates to lead the ONDCP, according to Chuck Ingoglia, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health: H. Westley Clark, the former director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Kelly Clark, past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Any of those potential leaders would mark a shift for the office, which generally hasn’t been led by someone from the world of addiction treatment and medicine. President Donald Trump’s drug czar is Jim Carroll, a former White House deputy chief of staff and counsel to the Ford Motor Co. President Barack Obama’s longest-serving ONDCP head was previously the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

The director requires Senate confirmation.

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images
Tablets of opioid painkiller Oxycodon delivered on medical prescription, taken Sept. 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Millions of Americans sank into addiction after using potent opioid painkillers that the companies churned out and doctors freely prescribed over the past two decades.

Biden will assume office during two pandemics: one caused by Covid-19, projected to kill more than 330,000 people in the U.S. by early January, and another by opioids, which contributed to more than 71,327 overdose deaths in 2019, an all-time high.

The president-elect put public health and addiction experts in key positions on his transition team. Biden picked Rahul Gupta, once the state health director for West Virginia, to lead the ONDCP agency review team.

Vivek Murthy was tapped by Biden to serve again as surgeon general, a position he used during the Obama administration to call for a “culture change” in how the country tackles addiction. Murthy published the first-ever surgeon general’s report on addiction.

During his campaign, Biden called for making a massive $125 billion investment in prevention, treatment, and recovery services, and pledged to overhaul the criminal justice system “so that no one is incarcerated for drug use alone.”

Transition Meetings

Addiction groups say Kennedy, a long-time mental health advocate, could be considered for the job. He’s garnered recommendations from Bethany Hall-Long, the lieutenant governor of Delaware, Thomas Insel, who directed the National Institute of Mental Health during the Bush and Obama administrations, and former ONDCP head Michael Botticelli. Kennedy is the second son of the late Edward Kennedy, the longtime senator from Massachusetts known as a “liberal lion,” and a nephew of President John F. Kennedy.

Patrick Kennedy said he met with Gupta and Regina LaBelle, another member of the ONDCP transition team who is also program director of the Addiction and Public Policy Initiative at Georgetown University.

Kelly Clark confirmed by email that she’s also interested in the position and “would be honored to serve if asked.”

Westley Clark said via email he would like to serve in the Biden administration “should I be invited to join it.”

Personal Experience

Kennedy would head the office with personal experience in dealing with addiction.

“As someone living in long-term recovery I know this disease in all its forms,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he hopes to use the power of ONDCP to integrate behavioral health and addiction treatment better with other types of medicine, particularly in terms of reimbursement by insurers. Kennedy, who helped pass the landmark law that called for parity between mental health and physical health services, said the U.S. needs to treat addiction like any other chronic disease.

“We’re at a moment in American history to finally acknowledge the disease of mental health illness and addiction and have it as part of this larger discussion we’re having about public health,” he said.

He was part of Trump’s opioid commission, a position he held while also serving as CEO of the Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit funded in part by drug companies and the pharmaceutical lobby. Kennedy was paid $1.29 million for leading the Kennedy Forum between 2016 and 2019, the latest tax records available show.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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