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Biden Nominates Drug Czar to Combat Growing Opioid Crisis

West Virginia’s former health commissioner has been chosen to handle federal drug policy during an escalating opioid epidemic.

(CN) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Dr. Rahul Gupta of West Virginia to serve as the administration’s top drug policy official.

The state's former health commissioner is slated to become the first physician to ever lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP, if confirmed by the Senate.

Gupta, a primary care doctor, went on to serve as the chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes, a maternal-and-child advocacy group, after his time working in the West Virginia state government.

He also helped lead the Biden transition team. If confirmed, he will replace Regina LaBelle, acting director of the ONDCP , who is an Obama administration alum.

As the latest director of the drug control policy office established about 30 years ago, Gupta will oversee the Biden administration’s federal response to the nation’s escalating opioid epidemic.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses involving opioids killed about 50,000 people in 2019 and nearly 73% of those deaths involved synthetic opioids.

The agency’s preliminary data shows that about 91,000 people died from a drug overdose last year. That is almost a 30% increase from the previous year. Overdoses are expected to continue to climb among the U.S. population.

Gupta is an ally of Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who expressed approval of  the physician’s potential nomination after it was first reported by The Washington Post. 

Manchin said in a statement on Tuesday that Gupta’s expected nomination “means someone with firsthand knowledge of the opioid crisis,” especially in West Virginia, “will be coordinating the national fight against the drug epidemic that continues to ravage our nation.”

According to Manchin, his state has led the country in drug overdose rates for about 20 years. 

Gupta received criticism from some drug reform advocates, who expressed disapproval of the closure of a needle exchange program in Charleston, West Virginia, under his leadership. 

However, while serving as state public health commissioner from 2015 to 2018, Gupta worked to set up similar programs elsewhere in the state as part of efforts to mitigate the opioid crisis there. 

“Dr. Gupta brings firsthand experience as a medical doctor and public health official using evidence-based strategies to address the overdose epidemic in West Virginia,” the White House said in a statement. “We hope he will be confirmed by the Senate soon.”

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