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U.S. Surgeon General Calls For Racial Equity In Opioid Response

Gretchen Frazee

At the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Conference in Indianapolis,  U.S. Surgeon General and former Indiana Health Commissioner Jerome Adam called for racial equity in addressing the opioid epidemic.

Adams spoke Friday to an audience that included members of state legislatures across the country, an event that kicked off with a performance of elementary school children singing "Lift Every Voice" — considered by many the Black national anthem. 

Adams said race and class play a role in how communities respond to the opioid epidemic.

“Here’s the challenge for all of you in this room. We need to make sure when policies are implemented to address the opioid epidemic, they’re implemented in an equitable way,” he said.

Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General
At the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Conference, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams congratulates Building Blocks Academy students after they performed the Black National Anthem.

He gave the example of diversion programs, such as drug treatment courts, that give some defendants the choice of jail or treatment. He said too often, these programs make decisions about who gets in based on someone’s chance of succeeding at recovery.

For example, those with family support systems and resources such as housing are sometimes favored for treatment.

“The affluent and the non-minorities are going to be the ones that have the best chance of being successful and the minorities and the less affluent are not,” he said.

Adams challenged the audience to support programs that use their resources equitably to give everyone suffering from addiction a chance at recovery.

“Because [we’ve got a] 267 percent increase in heroin overdoses in whites, but what we aren’t talking about is we’ve got over a 200 percent increase in overdoses in blacks,” he said. “So this epidemic is really affecting everyone and the solutions have to affect everyone also.”

A trained anesthesiologist, Adams was appointed Indiana’s health commissioner by then-Gov. Mike Pence in October 2014. Four months into the job, he announced an HIV outbreak in rural Scott County, Indiana, spread almost entirely through injection drug use.

Adams played a key role in the state’s response, and health workers credit Adams with persuading Pence to legalize syringe exchanges to contain the spread of the disease.

Since he was appointed U.S. Surgeon General, Adams acknowledged he’s been criticized for working with President Trump.

“What I would say to everyone in this audience is if you don’t agree with what’s going on, how are you going to change it if you’re not in the room?”

He said he applauds the president for declaring the opioid epidemic a public health emergency and pushing federal agencies to find additional funds to address the crisis.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.