Obama Unveils New Federal Initiative to Combat America's Heroin Crisis
Barack Obama has unveiled a new federal initiative to combat the opioid crisis that has ravaged communities across the United States, causing more annual deaths in some states than car accidents.
The president traveled on Wednesday to West Virginia, an epicenter of the nation’s opioid and heroinepidemic, to detail his plan to try and reverse some of the harrowing statistics that have recently created a sense of urgency around substance abuse . In 2013 alone, more than 37,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, and prescription painkillers accounted for 16,000 of those deaths.
“This crisis is taking lives, it’s destroying families, it’s shattering communities all across the country,” Obama said at a roundtable discussion with community members, members of law enforcement and health care officials. “And that’s the thing about substance abuse – it doesn’t discriminate.”
“It touches everybody, from celebrities to college students to soccer moms to inner-city kids – white, black, Hispanic, young, old, rich, poor, urban, suburban, men and women.”
Among the Obama administration’s proposals were to improve training among prescribers for opiate painkillers and to expanding access to medication-assisted treatment. The president also emphasized the need for criminal justice reform, another key platform of Obama’s second-term agenda, namely with respect to pushing to treat nonviolent drug offenders rather than imprison them.
“We should approach substance abuse as an opportunity to intervene, not incarcerate,” Obama said.
The event, attended by many individuals who have been directly affected by the epidemic, was packed with emotion and a sense of desperation among families struggling to access treatment for their loved ones.
Cary Dixon, a West Virginia woman who works with a support group for parents, joined the president on stage to share the toll of substance abuse on ordinary households. Her voice occasionally cracking, Dixon described an atmosphere in which vacations were almost always put on hold, time taken off from work, marriages and other children neglected, and phone calls that could bear the worst of news.
“For too long we’ve been silent because of the stigma of this disease and the shame that we feel,” she said. “I think that is holding us back, we need to open our voices so that people don’t feel ashamed. This is a disease, it is a sickness.”
Obama, too, spoke of the “shame and fear and stigma” that too often prevents families from accessing treatment and underscored the difference that could be made simply by changing some of the terminology associated with addiction. Part of his administration’s goal, he said, was to replace words like “junkie” with “father or daughter or son or friend or sister”.
“Then you understand there’s a human element behind this,” Obama noted.
The president chose West Virginia as his venue due to its own overwhelming, even if not unique, struggles with substance abuse. The state is home to the highest rate of overdose deaths – more than twice the nationwide average – with an estimated 88% of drug overdoses this year caused by opiate-related substances.
Obama’s memorandum would also task federal agencies that offer health insurance with reviewing any barriers under their health plans that bar patients from access to medication-assisted treatments for opioid abuse – and to address those restrictions should they be found.
An investigation by The Huffington Post published this year examined the treatment industry in Kentucky, another state crippled by the heroin epidemic, and discovered stiff opposition to medication-assisted models despite medical consensus in its favor, and evidence that an abstinence-based approach was contributing to the majority of fatal relapses.
The Obama administration has taken other steps to reverse the narrative against medication-assisted treatment, such as an announcement in February that stripped federal funding from drug courts which prevented MAT access to those suffering from substance abuse. The president also expressed his support on Wednesday for ensuring that first responders have access to naloxone, also known as Narcan, a drug used in overdoses to reverse the effects of opioids.
Obama’s health care law also expanded coverage for substance abuse disorders, although some West Virginia residents at the town hall expressed concerns over a lack of local treatment centers.
One man said the site of the meeting was a place he last visited when his daughter was in eighth grade. Describing her as a cheerleader who excelled in her schoolwork, the man recounted how her life was derailed by substance abuse. Following a near fatal overdose last month, he and his wife were forced to send her to a treatment center but could only locate one in Michigan, where she is now.
“If there aren’t facilities available, then the treatment coverage can be illusory … we have to close that gap,” he said.
Obama acknowledged the need for building and funding more treatment facilities locally, while also nodding to an increasingly bipartisan approach toward reforming drug and criminal justice policies.
The stories of parents visibly resonated with Obama, who is himself the father of two teenage daughters. Referencing Sasha and Malia Obama, the president grew emotional while sharing what he said was one of his favorite sayings about children: “It’s like having your heart walking around outside your body.”
The feeling of helplessness that overcomes so many parents when realizing they can only do so much to protect their children, he added, extends to substance abuse and how it should be perceived.
“It could be your child,” Obama said. “This is all of us.”