This week at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, President Obama participated in a panel discussion, highlighting several initiatives that the administration is undertaking to address addiction. He said the opioid and heroin crisis has been a top priority.
“My job is to promote the safety, the health and the prosperity of the American people and that encompasses a whole range of things—things that are tracking down ISIL, things that are responding to natural disasters and things that are promoting a strong economy,” he said.
He cited the often-quoted statistic that overdose deaths in the United States have now surpassed the number of deaths attributed to auto accidents. Large-scale efforts to make automobiles and driving safer have helped reduce fatal accidents over the years, and those solutions were based on data.
“The problem is, here we have a trajectory that’s going in the opposite direction,” Obama said. “So in 2014, the last year we have accurate data for, you see an enormous, ongoing spike in the number of people who use opioids in ways that are unhealthy. And you see a rise in the number of people who are being killed.”
It’s clear that addiction affects every community, without exception, touching the lives of men and women, the young and old, rural and suburban areas. Because it has impacted so many lives nationwide, there has been bipartisan interest to seek solutions, and that’s the good news, Obama said.
“We’ve got an all-hands-on-deck approach,” he said. “But we have to make sure our medical community, our scientific community, individuals--all of us--are working together to address this problem. And I’m very optimistic we can solve it. I’m seeing action in Congress to move the ball forward.”
Obama acknowledged that treatment is greatly underfunded and under-resourced. While Congress is creating solutions and making progress, he noted “you have to provide actual funding.”
The president was joined by two people in recovery: Justin Luke Riley, president and CEO of Young People in Recovery, and Crystal Oertle, a mother of two from rural Ohio, who told their stories.
“There are millions and millions of people that can and do recover,” Riley said.
He talked about the lack of recognition from his childhood pediatrician that he had a substance use disorder and was self-medicating with cold medicine at a young age. Riley noted the need for education for providers today.
Oertle spoke of the stigma, even among medical professionals who were “nasty” toward her and many who would only accept cash payment for services. The stigma and financial barriers affected her access to services.
“It’s great to hear the president say ‘the disease of addiction,’” Oertle said.
Obama reiterated the administration’s position on supporting naloxone programs because the evidence shows they work to save lives and provide those with SUD a chance to recover.
“It doesn’t do much good to talk about recovery after folks are dead,” Obama said.
During the hour-long discussion, he touched on parity and the new task force that will enforce laws as well as the national push to better educate prescribers on state-of-the-science guidelines on opioids. He likened opioid prescribing patterns today to the patterns seen for antibiotics several years ago. Today there is a much greater awareness of antibiotic resistance, and physicians have changed their protocols to reduce risk. It should be the same with opioids, he said.
“We have to change the medical profession and the drug companies and hold them more accountable,” he said. “And we as consumers, as parents, have to be more accountable as well in how we approach keeping our families well.”
Speaking to 2,000 stakeholders and 70 media outlets, Obama noted that the goal of the Rx Summit is to approach the prescription drug abuse and heroin crisis as a society. While funding is not the sole issue, it certainly helps, he said.
“We do know there are steps that can be taken to help people battle through addiction and get on the other side. And right now that is under-resourced,” he said.
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