October 10, 2017
Melania Trump Says She Aims to ‘Give a Voice’ to the Victims of Opioids
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Melania Trump, a once-reluctant first lady who has lately been ramping up her travels as well as directing her aides to lash out at rivals, allowed the public a glimpse at her nascent platform on Tuesday at a clinic that treats infants born with addiction.
Mrs. Trump flew about 400 miles to this western edge of the state. Her visit is a signal that her interests — so far stated broadly as helping children and combating cyberbullying — have narrowed, at least for now, to focus on learning more about the opioid epidemic.
More than two million Americans are estimated to have problems with opioids, and Appalachia has some of the highest overdose rates in the country.
“Please tell me how I can help,” Mrs. Trump told staff members and former clients of Lily’s Place, which was established in 2014 and has so far treated around 190 babies suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome. “That’s why I’m here. I want to listen to your stories; I want to hear what I can do to help.”
The short answer, according Rebecca Crowder, the clinic’s executive director: money.
“We still battle with funding, obviously,” Ms. Crowder told the first lady. “We haven’t gotten to that point where they recognize us through Medicaid.”
The brief exchange raises questions about how Mrs. Trump could help address the issue. The latest Republican-driven effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act would have dismantled the Medicaid expansion and capped open-ended funding of the program, an entitlement that covers one in five Americans.
In an eight-minute appearance in front of reporters, Mrs. Trump said her goal for the visit, which lasted about an hour, was to help “give a voice” to families facing addiction.
“We need to open the conversation and teach children and young mothers that it’s dangerous to use drugs,” Mrs. Trump said.
Accompanying the first lady to Lily’s Place was Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, and Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the assistant secretary of health and human services for mental health and substance use.
Mrs. Trump’s visit could be seen as a boost to Representative Evan Jenkins, a Republican who helped found the clinic and who is challenging Senator Joe Manchin III, a former governor of the state, for his seat in 2018.
Mr. Jenkins, who greeted the first lady after she landed in West Virginia, said in an interview that he had met several times with White House aides to talk about Lily’s Place, and that he personally discussed the clinic with Mr. Trump aboard Air Force One.
Having the first lady’s attention, Mr. Jenkins said, was “particularly impactful” to his cause. In May, Mr. Jenkins wrote and introduced the Caring Recovery for Infants and Babies Act that would allow families needing treatment at a clinic like Lily’s Place to be covered through Medicaid.
“Having her voice behind it will be very, very important,” he said.
Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, said that Mrs. Trump had chosen Lily’s Place because it was brought up often in the “many conversations she’s had on the topic.”
Others who are hoping for the White House to push for more resources and policy changes watched Mrs. Trump’s visit with interest. Jessica Hulsey Nickel, the president and chief executive of the Addiction Policy Forum, a group of organizations working to elevate awareness of the opioid crisis, said that a visit from the first lady — even a brief one — could help her cause.
“The more awareness and the brighter spotlight that we shine on this issue,” she said, “the more likely we are to get the resources and new strategies that we need.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a report released last year that the incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome climbed to six per 1,000 hospital births in 2013, up from 1.5 per 1,000 in 1999. In 2012, one infant with the illness was born every 25 minutes.
Mrs. Trump has not unveiled concrete plans to move forward with her platform, and many observers are still trying to read the tea leaves regarding her comfort with White House life.
She is, apparently, at least comfortable with her title. On Monday, Mrs. Trump found herself in a tangle with her husband’s first wife, Ivana Trump, who jokingly referred to herself as “first lady” while promoting her new memoir.
“Mrs. Trump has made the White House a home for Barron and the President. She loves living in Washington, D.C., and is honored by her role as first lady of the United States,” Ms. Grisham said in an email on Monday. “She plans to use her title and role to help children, not sell books.”
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