Obama joins Rogers at National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, says it’s time to focus on treatment over incarceration

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The fifth annual national summit on prescription drug abuse, started by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, was the largest, broadest and highest-profile yet.

A non-prescription drug was added to the title of the four-day event, making it the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. It drew more than 1,900 to Atlanta, including President Barack Obama, who joined an hour-long panel to talk about new ways to deal with a growing opioid and heroin epidemic.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers

“The rapid growth of this summit is truly a testament to the power of unity. Everyone here has one common goal – to save lives from the dark clenches of drug abuse,” Rogers, a Republican from Somerset, said in a news release.

The summit was hosted by Operation UNITE, a Kentucky non-profit created by Rogers that leads education, treatment and law enforcement initiatives in 32 counties in Southern and Eastern Kentucky. The acronym stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. someone dies every 20 minutes from an opioid overdose and Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest rates, with more than 1,000 deaths a year from it.

(On Monday, April 4, KET‘s “Kentucky Tonight” will have a report on the summit and a look back at the network’s coverage of drug addiction issues. For a preview from host Bill Goodman, click here.)

The University of Kentucky and UK HealthCare, which helped sponsor the summit, sent a delegation of executive, clinical and research leaders, including President Eli Capilouto as one of the keynote presenters, according to a UK news release.

“Too many Kentucky families are too often confronted by the dark and painful scourge of prescription drug abuse and opioid addiction,” Capilouto said. “It’s an epidemic that penetrates communities across the nation, both urban and rural, but has especially intractable roots in Appalachia and the regions served by the University of Kentucky.”

Obama opened his remarks on the panel by thanking Rogers,who is also co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse, and UNITE, “the organization that has been carrying the laboring oar on this issue for many years now. We are very grateful to them.”

Obama focused some of his comments on broadening access to medication-assisted treatments for addiction, most successfully with counseling and behavior therapy.

“What we do know is that there are steps that can be taken that will help people battle through addiction and get onto the other side, and right now that’s under-resourced,” the president said.

Obama’s administration recently proposed doubling the number of patients a health-care provider can treat with buprenorphine, one of the drugs used to fight addiction, to 200 from 100.

He said the opioid and heroin epidemic is a public-health issue and not just a criminal-justice problem, which is the only way to reduce demand. “In this global economy of ours that the most important thing we can do is to reduce demand for drugs,” he said.

Because the opioid and heroin epidemic is touching everybody and not just poor people and minorities, there is now more emphasis on treatment over incarceration, Obama said: “This is not something that’s just restricted to a small set of communities. This is affecting everybody — young, old, men, women, children, rural, urban, suburban.”

The president also noted that there has been a significantly increase in opioid abuse in rural areas, which often suffer from an under-resourcing of treatment facilities and mental health services.

“And that’s why, for all the good work that Congress is doing, it’s not enough just to provide the architecture and the structure for more treatment. There has to be actual funding for the treatment,” he said.

The president has proposed $1.1 billion in his upcoming fiscal year 2017 budget request to fund drug-treatment programs in counties all across the country.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced two rural initiatives at the summit: town hall meetings in rural areas hit hardest by drug abuse, including Appalachia, “to raise awareness of the issue and discuss possible solutions,” and an extension of the Rural Health and Safety Education competitive grant program to include $1.4 million in grants that will now be available to rural communities to fight heroin and painkiller abuse, according to a press release.

The president also announced several other new initiatives: establishing a Mental Health and Substance Disorder Parity Task Force; implementing mental health and substance use disorder parity in Medicaid; releasing $11 million for the purchase and distribution of the opioid-overdose reversal drug, naloxone; expanding an initiative that improves local partnerships between law enforcement and public health; a $7 million investment for community policing to address heroin; and providing guidelines for the use of federal funds to implement or expand needle-exchange programs.

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