Obama administration launches week-long blitz on heroin and opioid crisis

The Drug Enforcement Administration says heroin is cheaper and sometimes easier to find than prescription painkillers.Video provided by Newsy Newslook

The Obama administration launched a week-long blitz on the heroin and opioid addiction crisis Monday, announcing new initiatives and calling on Congress to fully fund the effort with $1.1 billion.

President Obama has proclaimed the week Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week — a usually symbolic designation that's being backed up with a week-long series of speeches and policy announcements across the federal government.

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"This epidemic that we are in the grips of is taking a heartbreaking toll on American families," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. "We are in the midst of an epidemic, and sadly no one is immune, no individual, no family, no community." 

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Lynch will headline a roster of administration officials crisscrossing the country this week to promote awareness of the issue. She'll travel to Lexington Ky. Tuesday, where she'll hold a student town hall at a high school, meet with parents of overdose victims, and deliver a policy speech at the University of Kentucky.

The attorney general previewed those policies last week in an interview with USA TODAY, saying she would instruct her 94 U.S. attorneys to share information about prescription drug abuse across state lines, coordinate enforcement with public health authorities, and emphasize prevention and treatment in addition to enforcement.

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The Obama administration response will also involve initiatives from the Justice Department's organized crime task force, the Bureau of Prisons, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It can and does happen to families in every economic strata, every race, and every location," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. But in rural areas, "when that magic moment happens when they seek help and treatment, it’s not available."

The United States has about 1,000 behavioral service centers capable of treating heroin addiction in the United States, he said, but only 25 are located in rural areas.

So Vilsack said the USDA will spend $4.7 million on a telemedicine program that will allow 18 additional sites to expand access to substance use treatment by having patients consult with specialists remotely.

In other announcements Monday:

► The Food and Drug Administration announced a $40,000 prize to encourage software developers to create a mobile app to allow opiod users, their friends and families, and first responders to better identify and react to an overdose.

► The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said 1,275 medical practitioners had been granted waivers to allow them to treat as many as 275 patients each with buprenorphine, a synthetic drug used to treat opioid addiction.

► The Veterans Administration said it would announce funding to support Veterans Drug Courts this week in an effort to encourage judges to order treatment for veterans with substance abuse problems.

Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in July, expanding access to drugs to treat heroin overdoses and encourage treatment over incarceration. But while the bill authorized up to $181 billion in spending, the committees in charge of spending didn't actually provide the money.

"With 78 people dying every day it’s reprehensible that Congress would pass an opioid bill without providing any funding," said Michael Botticelli, the director of national drug control policy, or White House drug "czar."


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