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Christie flexible on saving Medicaid expansion
02:52 - Source: CNN

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Christie has long spoken out against opioid abuse

He joined Trump at the White House Wednesday

Washington CNN  — 

President Donald Trump, joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, renewed Wednesday his campaign pledge to combat opioid abuse and help those affected by the scourge during a White House listening session.

Christie, an early backer of Trump’s campaign, led the President’s transition team before running afoul of Trump’s inner circle and being replaced by Vice President Mike Pence. The New Jersey governor and former 2016 campaign rival has been an outspoken leader on opioid deaths, which have skyrocketed by 214% since 2010 in the Garden State, according to the New Jersey attorney general.

A White House official said Wednesday that Wednesday’s listening session was the start of a process that will eventually become a Christie-led task force on the opioid crisis and drug treatment.

“We want to help those who have become so badly addicted,” Trump said during the listening session that included people who lost family to opioid overdoses. “This is a total epidemic and I think it is probably un-talked about compared to the severity we are witnessing.”

Wednesday’s session follows a failed effort from Trump and the House GOP to replace Obamacare with a plan that experts say would have dramatically cut the availability of drug treatment programs to poor people under the Medicaid program.

The listening session is an attempt by Trump to make good on promises he made throughout the 2016 campaign to combat the growing opioid epidemic and offer more comprehensive drug treatment programs.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly also attended the event, along with Vanessa Vitolo, a recovering addict who has worked with Christie in the past, and Pam Garozzo, a New Jersey state Department of Education employee whose son Carlos died from a heroin overdose.

“I’m just so honored that the President would ask me to take on this task,” Christie said at the event.

Opioid overdoses have reached epidemic levels, according to the Center for Disease Control.

A study from the agency found that 25% of all drug overdose deaths were related to heroin in 2015. That number was just 6% in 1999.

In response to the issue, both Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, pledged to address opioid abuse during the 2016 campaign.

“We have to support locally based and locally run clinics,” Trump said in 2015. “In the meantime, people are getting hooked, and we’re going to take care of those people.”

Weeks before Election Day, Trump had said: “We will give people struggling with addiction access to the help they need. I would dramatically expand access to treatment slots.”

But Trump seemingly walked back from that promise earlier this month when he backed a health care bill that Republican governors and drug abuse experts would have put the most vulnerable opiate abusers in greater risk. The bill eventually failed, but the Trump administration forcefully backed the bill, including the provisions that would impact drug treatment.

Politically, Christie’s role in combating opioid abuse for the Trump administration could be the first steps taken to rehabilitate the governor’s lagging image and pave the way to bring him into the White House. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 17% of New Jersey voters approved of the job he was doing.

Christie, after ending his own campaign, lined up behind Trump early in the 2016 race. He was then tapped to lead Trump’s transition team but was unceremoniously demoted shortly after the election and replaced by Pence.

Trump called Christie a “great friend of mine” who was a “very, very early endorser.”

“In fact, an immediate endorser after he got out of the race,” Trump joked.

Rumors abound at the prospect of Christie, who is in his last year as governor, coming to the Trump White House. Christie and the President had lunch in February, but aides on both sides of the lunch said there was no talk of a job.

“There was zero, I repeat zero, conversation about that,” a senior White House aide had said.

This story has been updated with CNN’s more recent reporting.