Article Accuses Dr. McCance-Katz Of Promoting President Trump’s Covid Claims Instead Of Following Science

(9-16-20)  Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use, has been accused in an article posted on a popular health news website of repeating President Donald J. Trump’s pandemic statements for political reasons and politicizing the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Writing in STAT, an American health-oriented news site read by medical professionals, journalist Alison Insinger reports that current and former SAMHSA officials have complained that Dr. McCance-Katz is “politicizing the office and reinforcing administration arguments about Covid-19 that aren’t supported by sound scientific evidence.”

The STAT article, entitled, “Top health official echoes Trump’s Covid-19 views, drawing accusations of politicizing mental health agency,” was written after Dr. McCance-Katz spoke during an hour long podcast posted Friday on the HHS website.

STAT noted that Dr. McCance-Katz did not respond to an emailed request for comment, nor did spokespersons for SAMHSA and HHS.

In that podcast interview, Dr. McCance-Katz can be heard describing Covid 19 as “a very contagious infectious disease which in most people, by the way, is a mild and asymptomatic disease if you are below age 45 and younger…” She adds that Covid is not a life threatening illness for a majority of children, saying at one point, “What is this nonsense that it is unsafe for children to be in school?”

The interview was conducted by Michael Caputo and when he states, “I don’t think the U.S. media gives a damn about public health information,” Dr. McCance-Katz replies: “I don’t either.” She adds that “it appears to me that they (the media) make things up.”

A psychiatrist with a Ph.D. in infectious disease epidemiology from Yale, McCance-Katz argues that the harsh steps taken to contain the pandemic in the spring were excessive and have caused an increase in suicides, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illnesses.”We used a sledgehammer when I think we needed a scalpel.”

Dr. McCance-Katz’s statements mirror those of the president’s. He appointed her to serve as the head of SAMHSA and as the first assistant secretary at HHS for mental health and substance abuse in September 2017.

“She drank the Kool-Aid,” an anonymous source is quoted stating in the article.

I would strongly suggest that you form your own opinion by listening to the podcast.

During the first 20 minutes of the interview, Dr. McCance-Katz talks about her priorities at SAMHSA and promising steps that she has taken to reduce deaths caused by opioid abuse. 27 minutes into the interview, the subject turns to COVID.

“The people who make these decisions – the people who say it’s safer at home, stay at home, they tend to be people who are fairly affluent,” she states about isolation and the lockdown. “Yeah, it probably is safer at home for them because they go to some nice house, some big house with all the amenities…to get additional isolation and protection but for the majority of Americans, they can’t do that.”

The podcast was part of a Learning Curve series that Caputo launched featuring interviews with senior HHS officials.

Yesterday, (9-15-20) HHS announced that Caputo, who was HHS’s top spokesman, was taking a leave of absence. His departure came after the New York Times reported that Caputo had stated during a Facebook chat that scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “don’t want America to get well.” The newspaper said he promoted dangerous conspiracy theories and, at one point, urged Trump supporters to load up on ammunition in preparation for a violent left-wing rebellion when the president wins re-election. Caputo also said in the video he’s been having health issues and that his “mental health has definitely failed.”

Before taking charge of SAMHSA, Dr. McCance-Katz criticized the agency in a 2016 article published in Psychiatric Times. She wrote that SAMHSA ignored Americans with serious mental illnesses and suggested that some SAMHSA officials questioned whether mental illnesses were real. Since taking charge, she has made serious mental illness one of three priorities and has pushed for greater use of Assistant Outpatient Treatment and has urged states to seek waivers of the IMD exclusion, that limits the number of inpatient beds that are reimbursable by the federal government. I named her as the most impactful player in mental health in 2018 because her leadership at SAMHSA, noting that the agency had not employed a single psychiatrist  under its previous director. SAMHSA’s Office of the Chief Medical Officer now employs psychiatrists, a clinical psychologist and nurse so the agency can benefit from professionals with real world experiences. She has been a popular choice among parents of adults with mental illnesses. I strongly supported her nomination and appointment as assistant secretary.

Here is the STAT article.

Reopen the schools, diminish the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, and the economy comes first. President Trump and White House aides have been pushing these views for months. Now a top public health official is joining the chorus.In a new podcast, and in other public statements, the head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) strongly echoes the president’s talking points on reopening schools and businesses, angering current and former agency officials who say she is politicizing the office and reinforcing administration arguments about Covid-19 that aren’t supported by sound scientific evidence.“What is this nonsense that somehow it’s unsafe to return to school?” SAMHSA administrator Elinore McCance-Katz says, unprompted, midway through a podcast posted last week on the website of the Department of Health and Human Services. At another point she says, “There was no agreement to this, to this nonstop restriction and quarantining and isolation and taking away anything that makes people happy.  … You can’t go to a movie, you can’t go to a football game.”A psychiatrist with a Ph.D. in infectious disease epidemiology from Yale, McCance-Katz argues during the podcast that the harsh steps taken to contain the pandemic in the spring were excessive. “I’m going to say it,” she said. “We shut down the entire country before the virus, in my opinion, had a chance to get around the entire country. … We used a sledgehammer when I think we needed a scalpel.”

Even with an administration where political appointees atop health agencies are expected to stand behind the president’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, former agency officials were taken aback by her comments.

Regina LaBelle, chief of staff in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration, said when she heard the last line of the podcast — “paid for by taxpayers” — she started laughing. “It’s so blatantly political and cynical, and it breaks my heart to see this,” said LaBelle, now program director of the Addiction and Public Policy Initiative at the Georgetown University Law Center. “Families are suffering and they deserve to be treated with respect by their government.”

“I’ve always had great respect for her,” LaBelle said of McCance-Katz, but as a political appointee, she’s in “a bubble of the machinery of government. And right now, the machinery of government is being used to reelect the president.”

The podcast is part of a series in which Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official appointed as HHS assistant secretary for public affairs in April, interviews department officials. Caputo has become a controversial figure at HHS. His communications team has been pressuring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to water down weekly scientific reports on Covid-19 to more closely align with the president’s optimistic views about the course of the pandemic, Politico reported last week. And over the weekend, according to the New York Times, Caputo claimed on Facebook, without evidence, that government scientists were engaging in “sedition” and that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.

The podcasts are posted on the HHS website and distributed through popular platforms, including Apple, Google Play, and Spotify. “Each episode takes the listener behind the scenes at HHS as the experts explain what they’re working on and what you need to know,” an HHS spokesman said.

In the latest podcast, McCance-Katz says reopening schools and businesses is essential for people’s mental health. “There was a study published just a few months ago that said, for every 1% increase in unemployment, we will see an additional 1.3% jump in our suicides,” she says. “So, this is going to be a hugely terrible but important issue for us to address.”

Caputo tells McCance-Katz that the opposition to reopening schools is political, to which she responds, “It makes no sense.”

McCance-Katz, appointed to lead SAMHSA by Trump in 2017, never once challenges Caputo in the podcast – not even when Caputo, the top communications official at HHS, says, “I don’t think the United States media gives a damn about public health information.”

“I don’t too,” McCance-Katz responds.

Bob Lubran, until the end of 2016 the head of SAMHSA’s Division of Pharmacologic Therapies, said he believes McCance-Katz is being pressured to make such comments. “I view that as taking the party line,” he said. “I can’t imagine she would volunteer to do that.”

Another former agency employee, who knew McCance-Katz well, was blunter, saying: “She drank the Kool-Aid.” Like many former and current officials interviewed for this article, this person didn’t want to be identified, fearing retaliation.

McCance-Katz did not respond to an emailed request for comment, nor did spokespersons for SAMHSA and HHS.

SAMHSA leads public health efforts to reduce substance use and mental illness. McCance-Katz was its first chief medical officer, during the Obama administration, but left, afterward writing a scathing letter to Psychiatric Times in which she criticized the agency for not caring adequately for people with serious mental illness. She was brought back by President Trump as assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at HHS at the beginning of his term.

There have been other instances in which McCance-Katz has aligned herself with Trump’s views on the response to Covid-19. In mid-August, she wrote an op-ed in USA Today calling for schools to reopen. She cited the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy, which urged the return of children to classrooms, but she did not mention the AAP’s caveat that the reopening proceed only if it could be done safely.

“What the data shows clearly is that when schools reopen and community spread has not been adequately controlled, you will have infection in kids and teachers and parents,” Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician who serves as an AAP spokesman and on its Council of School Health, told STAT.

Children are part of a social network, said H. Westley Clark, former director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, citing a CDC study that found children infected with the coronavirus at child care facilities had transmitted it to household members. “We have to ask how a child would feel if he/she infects his/her parent, especially if that parent is incapacitated by SARS-CoV-2 brought home by the child,” added Clark, a psychiatrist who is now a dean’s executive professor at Santa Clara University. “Remember, communities of color have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.”

McCance-Katz also told President Trump during a May 19 Cabinet meeting that it’s vital to reopen the economy. “To put all of this in perspective, I believe it is important to point out that, pre-pandemic, we lose 120,000 lives a year to drug overdose and suicide. How many more lives are we willing to sacrifice in the name of containing the virus?” she said.

At the time, there had been more than 90,000 Covid-19 deaths reported in the U.S. in just three months, and the total is now nearing 200,000.

“When we look at strategies to reopen, as a medical doctor, I ask that you take into account whole health, not just one narrow aspect of physical health,” said McCance-Katz at the White House meeting. “We continually ask ourselves what the health costs and risks may be of reopening, but I ask: What might they be of not reopening or reopening in such a restrictive way that American lives are not restored?”

“As a psychiatrist, I would argue that a life lost to suicide is just as important as a life lost to coronavirus,” she concluded, calling the virus only “one metric,” and adding: “Virus containment cannot be our only goal, no matter the cost to Americans.”

McCance-Katz made no mention of the fact that lockdowns were deemed necessary by public health officials to “flatten the curve” in the spring and keep the U.S. health care system from being overwhelmed.

“Yes, overdoses are increasing and suicide is increasing, probably related to a lot of things including coronavirus,” one former SAMHSA employee told STAT. “Probably everybody in the United States has some form of generalized anxiety disorder right now, but is it ethical to say that we will reduce the suicide and overdose rates by reopening? We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s bad logic.”

STAT interviewed six former senior SAMHSA officials for this article, three other former high-level federal officials, and seven agency contractors and grantees, and most didn’t want their names used, citing fears that they could be retaliated against. Former officials said they feared their current employers risked losing agency funding if they spoke openly.

“As a former SAMHSA employee,” one person said, “I have seen the vindictiveness of this administration and her [McCance-Katz’s] henchpeople firsthand towards those who challenge the status quo, and I can’t afford to put [my organization] in the line of fire.”






About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.