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Friday, January 15, 2016

President Obama and Secretary Tom Vilsack Fight Rural Opioid Addiction

The White House announced that President Obama is appointing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, his Cabinet’s longest-serving member, to lead a new interagency effort focused on addressing rural America’s struggle with heroin and opioid abuse as well as other pressing problems.

In an interview, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the work Vilsack has done since 2011 chairing the White House Rural Council, a group focused on these areas, has given him “firsthand experience” seeing how substance abuse and poverty have continued to keep Americans in some parts of the country from making headway.

McDonough explained: "The whole point is to have the secretary of agriculture look across the [federal government] to see what unique capabilities agencies have to invest in blowing through these obstacles to opportunity in rural communities.”

The Rural Council encompasses 15 departments and multiple agencies, including Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs and the Office of National Drug Policy, among others.

Vilsack will unveil the new initiative during a town hall discussion on January 15 at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he will be discussing the expansion of the administration’s rural-development efforts in 11 counties experiencing persistent poverty in the part of Appalachia that extends into southern Ohio.

(Juliet Eilperin. "Here’s how the White House plans to address rural America’s struggle with heroin." The Washington Post. January 15, 2016.)

The budget agreement struck last month provided the administration with more than $400 million to address the epidemic, an increase of more than $100 million from the previous year. It also cut language barring the use of federal funds for needle-exchange programs, a move that many public health advocates had sought.

Mark Publicker, past president of the Northern New England Society of Addiction Medicine, said that while he was “utterly pessimistic” that a government task force could have a major impact on the problem, he had been encouraged by some of the efforts the administration had been taking to address the fact that the rural poor are “most stricken by the epidemic and have the least access to treatment.”
I have watched the Presidential Debates, and I believe they have featured far too little discussion on drug abuse and particularly on the heroin epidemic. Heroin and prescription opioid drug overdoses kill about 30,000 people a year. Heroin-related death rates increased 28 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone.

It is time for the federal government to address this domestic terror threat and provide more resources to fight opioid addiction while rethinking strategies about how best to treat addicts who often have trouble getting treatment. Unlike Mark Publicker, I am very optimistic about Tom Vilsack's Rural Council. In a time when it seems many criticize every step taken by President Obama, I want to thank him for focusing on the rural poor and opioid addiction.

Living in Appalachia, I understand the need and the desire for opportunity. Here, we tend to have a deep mistrust of the federal government that stems from a long history of neglect and lack of economic stimulus. Joblessness, poverty, inferior health care, poor education, and depression have all impacted the problem of drug abuse in Southern Ohio.

While struggling with what we Appalachian residents often view as insurmountable troubles, we have begged for federal assistance for so long. Addiction contributes to almost every obstacle to improvement. We desperately need to stop this drug epidemic to have a fighting chance of economic and social recovery.

Although some presidential candidates have expressed concern for rising opioid addiction, they all should prioritize this problem and express their specific plans to stop the epidemic. Both the actual carnage and threat of opioid addiction dwarf present ISIS terrorist concerns. It is unacceptable that so much talk about terror fails to include a committed focus on addiction. As the killing fields of overdoses swell, candidates must pledge more support to meet the challenge to end this health epidemic.


Shame For Ignorance and Lack of Action

Some of the twisted knowledge of opioid addiction is simply atrocious and indicative of the lack of real concern. Candidates often choose to blame the opposition for creating an environment that teems with drug abuse instead of facing the beast at hand. The epidemic has been in the making for decades. No one person or group is to blame unless they are titled "us."

For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie featured a campaign ad that begins with Christie, a former prosecutor, speaking directly into the camera: "Lawlessness in America and around the world under Barack Obama." Christie declares "drugs running rampant and destroying lives" as images of a hoodie-wearing addict shooting up and a close-up of what appears to be an addict overdosing appear on screen. 

This image and rhetoric are not representative of addicts or of conditions. During the Obama administration, a much-needed crackdown on pill mills helped spur a resurgence in heroin use. In a Huffington Post investigation, federal and state officials admitted that they knew such a crackdown would lead to a heroin problem. It was inevitable that prescription drug addicts would turn to heroin, the cheaper opiate that satisfied their cravings. 

Yet, Christie calls this President Obama's doing. In fact, in Christie's state of New Jersey, overdose deaths nearly tripled the overall U.S. rate. Blame? 

(Jason Cherkis. "Chris Christie Ties Heroin Epidemic To Obama." 
Huffington Post. August 24, 2015.)

Why haven't candidates given specifics about how to deal with drug abuse? One obvious reason is that treatment methods can be quite controversial, especially publicly-funded needle exchanges or more access to methadone and Suboxone, drugs used to help wean individuals off addiction.

Thank God that President Obama and Secretary Vilsack are taking a progressive step with more federal action. Opioid addiction is much more than a pressing political issue; it is a national health crisis that demands the immediate, full attention of the federal government. Soon, a new president will be faced with the problem. Choosing blame and bluster while campaigning instead of committing to a specific program based on clinical knowledge about this disease infuriates me.

The war on ISIS -- home and abroad -- is real and threatens the lives of all Americans. I understand that. I watch candidates rave and rage about how to solve this terrorist problem that they say is the number one concern of Americans. Yet, I believe the biggest terror threat to citizens -- youngsters, teens, the middle aged, and seniors -- is opioid addiction. Untold numbers of grieving mothers, fathers, and families provide evidence every day that drugs are the most dangerous threat to life and limb in America.

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