When asked about first lady Melania Trump's recent focus on the issue and the expectation she will continue to be part of the public effort, Kennedy didn't mince words.
"We don't want any more photo-ops," the former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island said in a phone interview with CNN on Wednesday. "I'm just speaking as an advocate, in this fight every single day as someone who is in recovery and someone who is an advocate. We don't want any more visits to rehab centers and photo-ops, saying how courageous we are. Enough already. We want to save lives."
President Donald Trump said last week that he would officially make a national emergency declaration to fight the opioid epidemic this week
Kennedy said the commission turned over its recommendations to the Trump administration, with a range of options on policies, many of which have already been publicly released. "They are hopefully working off from that, but we'll have to see as to how much of what we put forward is being immediately adopted and then we'll see how much with what we put forward Congress is going to also act upon."
He argued that the Trump administration's fiscal push is at odds with the goal of combating the opioid epidemic, because its proposed cuts to Medicaid harm the effort to get resources to those in need.
'What we need is at least $200 billion over the existing budget level, so by cutting a trillion we are basically in the hole a trillion, $200 million for what it will take to try to get our arms around this crisis," Kennedy said.
CNN has reached out to the White House for comment on Kennedy's comments and has not yet received a response.
Kennedy said the administration should focus on enforcing regulations on insurers, invest in treatment efforts and enlist social media companies to join a campaign to destigmatize those struggling with addiction. He stressed the effort to focus on treating those susceptible to addiction early in the process, with screening, treatment and medication made more readily available.
"Deaths are preventable, if someone has the medication then they are not going to not only have the craving, but if they do use, their chances of dying are dramatically reduced. If you had medication that could do that for any other illness that was killing this many people, you would make it available at every physician's office in this country. Period," Kennedy said.
He praised New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the chair of the commission, along with Massachusetts GOP Gov. Charlie Baker for devoting considerable state resources to programs that are helping prevent deaths.
The former congressman admitted some disappointment with the response from the previous administration, saying, "obviously it would have been really good if the Obama administration had done even more."
"He had a balancing act to do to keep them supporting the (Affordable Care Act) so I got the reality of that political decision. It doesn't mean I'm happy with it," Kennedy told CNN. He said that dynamic meant that the effort to enforce regulations on mental health parity came at the tail end of Obama's term.
Since leaving Congress, Kennedy has worked to ramp up a public awareness campaign. He told CNN he is working with others in the advocacy and mental health community to develop a scorecard to help people track how their elected representatives vote on key legislation.
"The only missing ingredient will be political will and that's for the American people to supply," Kennedy said, and added that is up to voters to do, both with the President and members of Congress.
He admitted there is work to do to mobilize people and part of that is dealing with the stigma of the issue. But because so many are affected and the problem is so pervasive, said if they haven't already become engaged elected leaders will be forced to.
"If you expect to have any future in politics, this in my view is a sleeping giant," Kennedy said.