Barack Obama committed Tuesday to take on America’s growing heroin and prescription opioid epidemic by devoting resources to prevention and treatment, rather than to the “war on drugs” policies of the last few decades.
Related: White House to commit $116m to heroin and opioid abuse epidemic
“For too long we’ve viewed drug addiction through the lens of criminal justice,” Obama said at a conference in Atlanta. “The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment – to see it as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.”
The president said he hoped his participation in the panel – part of the “National Prescription Drug Abuse Heroin Summit” this week – would draw attention to the shift in approach, exemplified by a series of efforts aiming $116m at treatment that the administration laid out earlier in the day.
“When I show up, usually cameras do too,” Obama said. “My hope is that it provides a greater spotlight to help solve this problem.”
CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, who moderated the discussion, said the aim of the panel was to “focus on a path forward – on solutions” to the epidemic, which claimed 28,647 lives in 2014, a four-fold increase in opioid overdoses since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Others in the panel included Crystal Oertle and Justin Luke Riley, two recovering addicts who now help others, and Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen. Obama referred to fixes needed in insurance, healthcare, and federal and state governments to stem the increase in addiction, which he said would not only help addicts but save the societal costs of their addiction.
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Oertle recounted using heroin in the bathroom while her two children were at school. Wen told a story of sending an addict back to the streets when treatment was unavailable, only to see him later die of an overdose in the emergency room.
Wen said that care for addicts is currently often unavailable. “One of the worst realizations as a doctor is that you can’t help someone … it’s inhumane and ineffective,” she said.
Oertle said her recovery depends on buprenorphine, a drug that combats opiate addiction, counseling, and helping others.
Obama’s plan introduced earlier in the day includes a proposed Health and Human Services Department (HHS) rule that would allow qualified doctors to increase the number of patients to whom they can prescribe buprenorphine from 100 to 200.
It also touted $94m in “new funding” that the department of health and human services released earlier this month, so that 271 community health centers could expand “medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders in underserved communities.” This funding could result in the centers treating 124,000 new patients, according to the White House. The plan also included $11m for states to distribute naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.
Obama also highlighted a nearly completed HHS rule that would treat substance abuse and mental health services like medical and surgical benefits under Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) programs. The White House said this could affect more than 23 million people.
Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said the increased focus on helping addicts rather than interdicting drugs and incarcerating dealers continues Obama’s commitment to “doing more than previous administrations to roll back the war on drugs.”
Obama’s plan “build(s) on” his call last month for an additional $1.1bn in congressional funding to fight the growing public health problem, according to the White House.
But Obama made clear in his remarks to the panel that “those $1.1bn are still not allocated. Until the money comes through it’s just an idea.” He warned: “if we don’t invest in this, we’re going to keep on being penny wise and pound foolish.”
He said addiction has historically not been viewed as a public health problem, in part because it was viewed as affecting “the poor and minorities.”
“It was a seen as a character flaw, and ‘not our problem.’ But the way we have looked at cigarettes as a public health problem, and traffic fatalities as a public health problem, if you take the same approach here, it can make a difference.”
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