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Obama Announces Efforts To Prevent Opioid Addiction, Expand Access To Treatment

President Obama speaking to the crowd at a forum about opioid addiction in Charleston, West Virginia Wednesday.
Ashton Marra
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
President Obama speaking to the crowd at a forum about opioid addiction in Charleston Wednesday.

The nation’s substance abuse epidemic is taking center stage after President Obama announced new federal policies to combat the issue yesterday. The president announced those changes during a trip to Charleston, West Virginia.

Obama held a forum that included a panel of both federal and local leaders.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“I didn’t grow up with a desire to use drugs. I didn’t even know what they were until I heard kids in high school talking about them, but when I heard my friend broke his toe and wasn’t taking his prescription curiosity took over,” speaker Jordan Coughlin told the crowd gathered at the forum.

Coughlin described himself as an addict in long term recovery. After years of struggling with an addiction to opioids, Coughlin accidentally overdosed and spent five days in a coma.

“The only reason I am here today is because treatment is effective and recovery does happen,” he said.

Now, Coughlin works at a recovery center helping others in his community that struggle with the disease to overcome it. After introducing the president Wednesday, Obama thanked Coughlin for sharing his story and called him living proof that treatment does work.

The President’s trip to the state coincided with an announcement of changes in federal substance abuse treatment policies.

“More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do from motor vehicle crashes. More than they do from car crashes,” he said. “The majority of those overdoses involve legal prescription drugs.”

Since 1999, sales of prescription painkillers in the country have increased by 300 percent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says in 2012, there were enough painkillers sold to give every American adult their own bottle of pills, and the increase in sales has corresponded with increased numbers of overdose deaths.

That’s why President Obama says he’s working on the issue now, hoping to shed some light on the substance abuse epidemic.

It’s no coincidence the President chose to announce his policy changes in West Virginia, the state with the highest overdose rate in the nation. Thirty-four of every 100,000 West Virginians die from overdoses each year, nearly three times the national average.

The Obama administration’s new policies are aimed at reducing those numbers and helping addicts gain access to the treatment they need to overcome the disease.

The first policy deals with prescriber training - teaching medical professionals how to appropriately deal with a patient’s pain while still providing them with the treatment they need.  

“I talk to many physicians who talk about the fact that they receive little to no training on safe and effective opioid prescribing,” Director of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, “and so we want that physicians and other prescribers feel comfortable not only prescribing these, but in essence not prescribing them or monitoring people along the way.”

Aside from funneling resources into proper training, the President is also working to expand access to medication-assisted treatment options. Those are programs that use methadone, suboxone and newly approved vivitrol, combined with counseling, to wean an addict off of a drug.

West Virginia has seen limited success using these types of treatments through the state’s drug court programs, but the President wants to put funds toward training more prescribers to use the method.

Obama has also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to locate barriers in the nation’s healthcare system that would prevent expanded access and come up with actionable plans to start breaking down those barriers.

The policies are meant to bring about a change, Obama said, a change not just in the number of people abusing drugs, but also in the culture of treating addiction.

“When people loosely throw around words like ‘junkie,’ nobody wants to be labeled in that way,” he said, “and part of our goal here today is to replace those words with words like ‘father’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘son’ or ‘friend,’ ‘cause then you understand there’s a human element behind this."

“This could happen to any of us, in any of our families. We can’t fight this epidemic without eliminating stigma,” the President said.