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Paul Ryan uses Donald Trump media frenzy to talk about opioid epidemic

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Paul Ryan capitalized on his newfound role in the Donald Trump media frenzy by calling attention to the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, and legislation to combat it.

On Wednesday morning, reporters were eager to hear about the House speaker’s meeting scheduled for the following day with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who is a news-coverage magnet.

“I know some of you are here about a meeting that is happening tomorrow. I’d like to talk to you about a meeting that I had yesterday,” Ryan said to journalists on Capitol Hill in Washington. “I met with the family of Jason Simcakoski.”

The former vice presidential nominee shared that family’s heartbreaking story about how their son lost his life to prescription drugs at 20. After high school, the promising young man from Stevenspoint, Wis., entered the Marines, attained the rank of corporal, got married and became a father. He went to a Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center for anxiety and was prescribed opioid painkillers. Simcakoski overdosed under medical supervision, Ryan said.

“We now know that Jason’s death could have and should have been prevented,” he said. “No one should seek help and receive mistreatment in return. No one.”

The Simcakoski family fought for reforms that are intended to improve the VA’s monitoring of prescriptions, and they were in the gallery on Tuesday to watch H.R. 4063 (the PROMISE Act) pass the House of Representatives, according to Ryan.

H.R. 4063 is just one of 18 bills to address opioid abuse for which House Republicans have scheduled votes this week. Ryan said the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation deserves a national response.

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At the news conference, Ryan shared a family’s heartbreaking story of losing their son to prescription drugs at age 20. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Ryan’s staff repeatedly teased the press for being more concerned about the speaker’s Thursday meeting with Trump than the opioid crisis. Last week, Ryan announced he could not yet bring himself to endorse Trump, a striking move right after the mogul locked up the GOP nomination.

On Tuesday, AshLee Strong, Ryan’s press secretary, emailed reporters a memo jokingly titled, “Ryan/Trump.”

“No, not really,” the memo began. “You should know that Thursday’s Ryan/Trump meeting is not the most important thing happening in DC this week.”

The Republicans hope to get a bill on President Obama’s desk quickly, Ryan said.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that drug overdoses claimed the lives of 47,055 people in the U.S. in 2014, the most ever.

“This is not just about process. This is not just about legislation. This is about saving people’s lives,” Ryan said. “It is about honoring those that were taken too soon. It is about honoring those who want a second chance. … And it’s also about protecting the next generation. Those of us who are raising the next generation care so deeply about this. That is what this week is about.”

At the same event, Representatives Susan Brooks, R-Ind., and Bob Dold, R-Ill., discussed similar tragedies involving young adults, and their proposed legislation.

In February, Brooks introduced a bill (H.R. 4641) to establish a task force to review and update prescribing practices for pain medication. She said that 80 percent of those dying from heroin were first addicted to pain medication.

“We’re going to bring a lot of proposals to the House floor from members all across the country. These are very bipartisan bills. This is something that affects so many different lives,” she said at the press conference.

Dold talked about an Illinois bill called “Lali’s Law” that would increase access to Naloxone, an emergency opioid blocker that reverses the symptoms of overdose.

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Ryan said that Republicans hope to get a bill regarding opioid prescription drugs on President Obama’s desk quickly. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Representatives Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Steve Scalise, R-La., and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., also spoke to lend their support to the effort.

In the memo, Strong said the bills are expected to pass with strong support from both sides of the aisle.

At the end of the press conference, when Ryan opened the floor to questions, every reporter who spoke asked about his well-known reluctance to endorse Trump in the presidential election or his planned meeting with the brash billionaire — not drug abuse.

According to Ryan, Republicans cannot simply pretend their party is unified after perhaps the most grueling primary in modern history. The various wings of the GOP need to put in the work to unify around shared principles so it does not enter the fall at half-strength.

“We cannot afford to lose this election to Hillary Clinton, to pack the Supreme Court to keep the liberal Obama agenda going,” he said. “We have to be at full strength so that we can win this election, and that is why we have to go through the actual effort and process of unifying.”

And as reporters asked about Trump, a Ryan staffer tweeted, tongue-in-cheek, “So glad that the House’s work to combat opioid abuse is getting some press attention.”

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