By DARLENE SUPERVILLE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Melania Trump said Thursday that many people are grieving after losing loved ones to the opioid crisis, telling a White House summit on the issue that "we need to change that."
Opening the gathering in the East Room of the White House, the first lady read from a letter from Betty Henderson. The North Fort Myers, Florida, woman who lost her 29-year-old son Billy to drugs last September. Henderson wrote to Mrs. Trump one month after her son died.
In the letter, Henderson appealed to the first lady as a mother and asked for her help "in claiming these lost souls before drugs take them from this earth."
Mrs. Trump asked audience members to remember Henderson as they work through issues related to opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl. Overdoses involving opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Let's all keep Betty and her son Billy in mind today as you are working through some of the issues related to the opioid epidemic," the first lady said. "Sadly, she is not alone in her grief, and we need to change that." Mrs. Trump acknowledged Henderson by calling her up on stage.
The White House is hosting the summit to highlight Trump administration efforts to combat the opioid crisis.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, was moderating the two-hour event featuring top officials from the departments of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, State, Justice and Homeland Security. The officials are providing updates on how they are tackling the epidemic. Besides administration officials, individuals affected by the crisis and nonprofit groups that focus on addiction and recovery also attended.
Trump has said the issue is a top priority for his administration, but critics say the effort falls short — something the first lady seemed to acknowledge when she said: "We all know there is still much work to be done."
Last October, Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, stopping short of the full state of emergency declaration sought by an advisory board he empaneled. The president also recently signed a budget agreement that will provide a record $6 billion over the next two years to fight opioid abuse. Decisions must still be made on how the money will be allocated.
The first lady has shown a keen interest in the opioids issue. She has attended meetings on the issue and visited hospitals and nonprofit drug treatment facilities for briefings.