Klobuchar releases plan to treat substance abuse, mental illness

The Democratic presidential candidate's plan to prevent and fight drug addiction is rooted in her personal experience as a daughter and a prosecutor.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sits down with NBC's Ali Vitali to talk about the newest policy roll out of her presidential campaign.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sits down with NBC's Ali Vitali to talk about the newest policy roll out of her presidential campaign.NBC News

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By Ali Vitali and Kailani Koenig

WASHINGTON — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., released a new policy Friday focused on treating and preventing substance abuse and mental illness — a plan she says isn't just an attempt to solve an issue she hears about on the campaign trail, but one with deep roots in her personal life.

"Everywhere I've gone in this country, every town hall meeting, people say, 'What's the most interesting thing that you've heard?' Almost every single one, people either ask about addiction or they ask about mental health," the presidential candidate told NBC News in an interview previewing the plan's release.

"They feel like they're not getting the help that they need. And the numbers support that," Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar's policy focuses on prevention and treatment of mental illnesses and addiction to substances ranging from opioids to alcohol.

On prevention of opioid addiction, Klobuchar would look to curb "doctor shopping" with prescription drug monitoring programs, build on drug takeback programs, and push for the development of pain treatment alternatives.

Her plan includes efforts to seek an increase in the number of beds in addiction treatment centers, launch “an aggressive national awareness campaign" to de-stigmatize addiction and treatment, and “make a dramatic federal investment” in National Institutes of Health funding to boost research into behavioral health issues and substance abuse.

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While Klobuchar’s proposal includes lofty goals, it’s currently light on specifics and there are few details explaining how it would be implemented. But she estimates the plan would cost $100 billion.

When asked how she plans to pay for it, Klobuchar cited instituting a milligram tax — a two-cent fee per milligram on opioids, as well as using money from lawsuits that are currently working through the legal system, brought against drug companies that made and marketed addictive painkillers. She also proposed changing the carried interest tax loophole and passing two bills she’s been involved with: the CREATES Act and the “pay-for-delay” legislation.

But this issue isn't just a policy on paper for Klobuchar — it's personal.

"This really comes from my own experience with my dad, who struggled with alcohol his whole life," she told NBC News. "I literally saw him climb the highest mountains" and "then sink to the lowest depth and the lowest valleys because of his battle with alcoholism."

"And like so many kids growing up in families like that, my sister and I would wait for him to come home for Christmas — and sometimes, my mom would say, 'Well, let's just open up a few presents now 'cause he's not here.' At the same time, I love my dad. And I loved him through all of this," she said.

For Klobuchar's father, who is now 91, the answer was treatment — and a little "tough love" after his third DWI arrest.

"That meant, 'either you get treatment or you're gonna go to jail.' And he chose treatment. And it changed his life," she said.

As a prosecutor in Hennepin County, Klobuchar also pursued a tough-love legal strategy. She led the charge in 2001 for a bill that made drunk driving a felony offense; after it was passed into law, it increased the state's prison population.

To Klobuchar, it was a way to avoid "repeat customers in the criminal justice system" and on the roads.

Thinking back on that time, she remembers seeing people "who were having 10, 15, 20 DWIs. They were a menace beyond treatment," she said. "So we put that in place for people who were extreme offenders when it came to driving. I actually see that different than the simple issue of people who need treatment."

The Minnesota senator entered the Democratic primary race to snow and fanfare, earning a tweet from President Donald Trump after she officially got in, and pitching herself to voters as a woman from the nation's heartland who could take back the White House for the Democrats.

But she's struggled to gain traction in the polls, while voters and politicos alike mull questions of "electability." Asked if that read to her as a euphemism for asking female candidates, "Can a woman win?" Klobuchar replied: "Of course, a woman can win."

Hers, she says, is a case built over time — not in "one week" but over the long haul.

"A lot of women have to plan ahead for their families," she said. "They have to juggle a lot of stuff. And they eventually get things done for their families. That's our campaign. It's not a campaign of a sudden popular moment on TV, honestly. It is a moment of earning people's trust."