Opioid death of son inspires first agenda item for Democratic Senate candidate

Trudy Busch Valentine hopes policy proposals will prevent overdoses, enhance enforcement for drug problem

By: - May 23, 2022 9:02 am

Democratic Senate candidate Trudy Busch Valentine is making opioid addiction the first issue for a detailed policy proposal from her campaign. (Darwin Brandis/iStock Getty Images Plus)

Matt Valentine was 499 days sober in a court-supervised diversion program when painkillers taken for a broken nose triggered a long-term addiction. He died of an overdose in August 2020.

When beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine announced her campaign for U.S. Senate, she pointed to her son’s 2020 overdose death as a key motivation for deciding to enter politics. A web ad launched on Mother’s Day delved into Matt’s story

And now, Valentine is making action on the national opioid epidemic her first significant policy proposal since joining the race in March.

“The day before he died, he had surgery for a broken nose,” Valentine said in an interview with The Independent. “And then I think he went back on to some opioids for pain. And that led him to wanting more and that and what he took killed him.”

Matt 36, was one of 1,375 Missourians who died of an opioid overdose in 2020. Missouri ranked 32nd in the nation for drug overdose death rates in 2020, the state Department of Health and Senior Services stated in a recent news release, and drug overdose was the leading cause of death for Missourians aged 18 to 44.

Deaths from overdoses of all drugs are up 38% since 2016, with deaths from opioid overdose up 71% and from synthetic opioids up 132%.

Matt didn’t know, Valentine said, that the drugs he purchased were laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 20-times stronger than heroin.

“Everyone today in Missouri and America needs to know that all these drugs are laced with fentanyl, and that you can’t even take a chance of experimenting with these drugs, because they can kill you, first time.”

Valentine, one of the heirs to the Busch family fortune estimated in 2020 at $17.6 billion, has never run for office before. Since she entered the race, opponents in the Democratic primary have criticized her for failing to identify specific policies or make appearances at grassroots events.

In a series of tweets May 5, St. Louis businessman and Democratic candidate Spencer Toder asked Valentine to respond with her qualifications for the Senate.

“I’d ask in person, but despite having run for this seat for a year and spoken at over Dem 100 events and gatherings, I’ve never seen you at one,” one of the tweets stated.

Valentine’s twitter account has recently shown her campaigning in a parade and attending an abortion rights rally.

The proposals released Monday target helping addicts recover by using leverage in the federal payments for Medicaid to increase rates to providers, quicker access to treatment and expanded use of telehealth. 

“If they can get into a system of being treated, they can get the help they need,” Valentine said. “There are medications now that people can take to prevent the high or whatever you get from taking an opioid. That’s huge.”

To fight the flow of drugs into illicit use, Valentine is calling for increased federal support for local police and training to use anti-overdose drugs to save lives. The proposals ask for more support for fighting distribution networks and holding pharmaceutical companies liable for marketing that has increased addiction.

“I want to have treatment, of course, but you know, there’s got to be something about preventing this from happening,” Valentine said. “We don’t want the crime from addiction.”

Opioid overdose deaths exceeded traffic deaths in Missouri for the first time in 2016, with 908 opioid deaths compared to 872 traffic deaths. Since that time, opioid deaths have increased five times faster than traffic deaths.

Deaths from opioid overdose increased 30% nationally in 2020, from 70,300 in 2019 to more than 91,000, in 2020, according to the National Institutes of Health

A large amount of funding for addiction prevention and treatment is flowing to states and the federal government from settlements with pharmaceutical companies. One of the biggest, involving Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, is being held up over provisions in a bankruptcy settlement that would exempt members of the Sackler family, owners of the firm, from personal liability.

An appeal over the settlement, worth about $10 billion, was argued in April but no decision has been released. It has sparked a debate over whether bankruptcy law should be used to shield shareholders in closely-held companies from liability.

“They’re not held responsible for the increase of opioids and I think that’s totally wrong,” Valentine said. “I think they need to be held responsible.”

One way would be to require an education campaign to combat opioid addiction and warn about the danger of drugs purchased illegally, Valentine said.

Valentine, Toder, Air Force veteran Jewel Kelly and Marine veteran Lucas Kunce are the most organized of the 11 Democrats on the Aug. 2 ballot. But polling shows none of the candidates have made a strong impression on Democratic voters. KMOV last week reported a survey that gave Kunce 10%, Valentine 8% and no other candidate more than 3%, with 63% undecided.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt is giving up a seat that Republicans have held for 36 years and the GOP primary has generated far more attention, with 21 candidates in all and six major candidates.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens, who is attempting a political comeback after resigning in disgrace in 2018, was leading the GOP field with 26% in the KMOV poll, followed by Attorney General Eric Schmitt at 17% and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler polling 11%.

A poll taken at the same time for Missouri Scout  by Remington Research, a firm owned by Schmitt’s consultant, Axiom Strategies, showed Schmitt with 29%, Hartzler with 23% and Greitens polling 21%.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.