President Barack Obama promised Wednesday to use federal programs to try to combat the epidemic of heroin use and prescription painkiller abuse that is upending communities across the country.
On stage at a crowded community center in Charleston, West Virginia, Obama heard from advocates, health care workers, law enforcement officials and policy makers about the depth of a problem that has long simmered at the state level is now on the national political stage.
Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster said his officers deal with a "community of zombies walking around" in need of treatment. A father of five daughters described what it was like to find one of them had overdosed, a needle hanging from her arm.
West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the U.S. — more than twice the national average, according to a report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
State officials say the problem is damaging the economy, depressing the workforce and overwhelming social services.
Obama stressed that drug abuse is a national problem.
On Wednesday, Obama ordered federal agencies that employ health care providers to offer training on prescribing painkillers. They also must review their health insurance plans and address policies that might prevent patients from receiving medication as part of their treatment.
Both steps are relatively modest efforts, given the budget stalemate in Congress. The White House has proposed $133 million for new treatment programs. The administration also wants to expand access to medications that can help addicts transition off other opioids, and has also pushed to expand availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose.
In August, the White House announced an effort to pair law enforcement officials with public health workers to promote treatment over prosecution of addicts.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in July found the number of people who reported using heroin within the past year had nearly doubled from 2002 to 2013. Heroin use was up among nearly all groups, but showed particular spikes among women and non-Latino whites.
Researchers say two factors are driving the trend: the rise in abuse of opioid painkillers — drugs that are often a precursor to heroin — and the increasing availability of cheap heroin.
Obama's visit comes as politicians are grasping for a policy response, including presidential candidates in both parties. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has laid out a $10 billion plan that promotes treatment over incarceration. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has visited drug rehabilitation centers and talked up his work to create drug courts at home that mandate treatment over jail time for non-violent offenders.
The Associated Press