WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is preparing to launch a renewed strategy to address the unrelenting scourge of heroin and opioid addiction, in part by placing greater emphasis on identifying links between over-prescribing doctors and distribution networks across the country.
The plan, outlined by Attorney General Loretta Lynch in an interview with USA TODAY, is part of an eleventh-hour push by the Obama administration against a public health crisis that continues to claim nearly 100 people each day in the United States.
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In a memo that is expected to be circulated next week to all 94 U.S. attorney offices, Lynch said prosecutors are being urged to more readily share information across state lines about prescription drug abuses by physicians that could identify traffickers and far-flung trafficking routes more quickly.
At the same time, Lynch said federal prosecutors will be directed to coordinate their enforcement efforts with public health authorities in their districts as part of an overall strategy that puts equal emphasis on prevention and treatment.
"I'm not calling anybody out, because I think the people who look at this problem realize quickly how devastating it has been to families, to communities, to public health dollars, to law enforcement resources,'' the attorney general said. "There is no one magic bullet for this.''
While opioid and heroin addiction have earned the distinction as the single greatest drug threat in the U.S., largely due to a casualty rate that has nearly quadrupled since 1999, the federal government's effort to counter it — or even slow it — has been spotty.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration requested nearly $1.1 billion as part of a plan to pay for drug treatment, invoking a common refrain that drug overdoses — driven increasingly by heroin and other opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone — are responsible for more deaths than car crashes. Yet after Congress approved landmark legislation in July for expanded drug addiction treatment and prevention, it did not include the $181 million to actually fund the measure.
Meanwhile, the deadly drug epidemic, which shadowed the early presidential primaries in addiction-plagued New Hampshire and Ohio, has largely receded from the public discussion during the general election.
"I have never seen anything like this,'' Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said during an appearance earlier this year before the Senate Judiciary Committee with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to outline the human wreckage that addiction has left behind in their tiny state. "This is about real people dying.''
Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy, said Thursday that a key part of the administration's renewed effort against heroin and opioid abuse will be to push Congress in the remaining days of the administration to provide the funding for both the legislation it approved earlier this year and the $1.1 billion in grants sought by the White House, which is staging a series of public events next week to call attention to the problem.
"The biggest area where we have fallen short is filling the gap between people who need treatment and those able to get it,'' Botticelli said, adding that it remains a challenge to "keep people alive so that they can get into treatment.''
"We need more treatment capacity. We cannot wait to save people. This requires a response commensurate with the size of the epidemic,'' the director said.
Said Lynch: "We've been looking at this for a long time with an awareness that you can't just have an enforcement strategy alone.''
In Manchester, N.H., where heroin addiction and opioid abuse have long ravaged the city, officials are for now going it largely alone in their efforts to combat the epidemic, which has claimed 74 people so far this year out of 570 suspected overdose calls.
The city's fire chief, Daniel Goonan, whose department is on the front line of a daily life-and-death effort, has taken a markedly unconventional route in an attempt to cut into the casualty count. Since May, Goonan has opened the city's fire stations to addicts seeking help with treatment, housing and other services.
So far, he said, the response has been encouraging. In the past four months, more than 480 people have come through the doors needing assistance.
"All I know is that we're dealing with a problem on our streets and we're operating independently without the state or feds,'' Goonan said. "I know it's not a great financial model. I know that money isn't going to be there forever, so our ability to sustain what we are doing is always going to be in question.''