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McAuliffe, Vilsack holding town hall on opioid addiction

Thursday, Jun. 30 | By Tom Vilsack and Terry McAuliffe
In Appalachia and across the country, opioid addiction is a fast-growing problem that disproportionately affects rural communities. And new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows opioids were involved in 28,648 deaths in 2014, meaning more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than in motor vehicle crashes each year.

As a predominately rural region, Appalachia has been hit particularly hard by this epidemic. According to the CDC, some of the largest concentrations of drug overdose deaths are in Appalachia. Tragically, 980 people in Virginia alone died of drug overdoses in 2014. Chances are, readers of this column have been directly affected by a loved one’s addiction, or know someone who has. In fact, a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that an astonishing 44 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who has been addicted to prescription pain medication.

This is a health crisis, and it is going to take serious action from all levels of government, the health community, law enforcement and other stakeholders, to turn those numbers around.

At the state level, Virginia is implementing a series of recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on Prescription Drugs and Heroin Abuse. This year, we saw laws that strengthened the state Prescription Monitoring Program by requiring more rigorous reporting and monitoring, and equipped law enforcement officers and first responders with ready access to overdose-reversal drugs to save lives. Recognizing the problems this epidemic has caused not only in state, but within the greater region, Virginia hosted an Appalachian opioid summit last fall to convene representatives of six Appalachian states working together across borders to find solutions to this challenge.

At the federal level, President Obama organized an interagency effort focused on heroin and prescription opioids in rural America. The Administration has been promoting strategies including evidence-based prevention programs, prescription drug monitoring, and access to medication-assisted treatment and the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Federal departments like the Department of Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, are putting put existing programs towards this effort. For example, USDA has invested heavily in telehealth, which allows doctors to provide expert advice in hard to reach rural areas that lack extensive medical personnel.

It’s encouraging that Congress is highlighting this issue by passing bills in response to the epidemic. But there is no funding attached to these measures that would expand the resources necessary to fight this epidemic. We need more than a permission slip from Congress. In order to meaningfully combat the crisis, Congress needs to act on the president’s budget proposal.

The president’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposes $1.1 billion in funding to ensure treatment for opioid use disorder is available to everyone who seeks it. The bulk of the funding would help states expand access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders. Additionally, the President’s budget includes funding to build on current federal efforts to expand state-level prescription drug overdose prevention strategies, increase the availability of medication-assisted treatment programs and overdose-reversal drug naloxone, and support targeted enforcement activities.

Under the president’s budget proposal, Virginia alone could receive up to $17 million over two years to expand access to treatment for opioid use disorders. This funding would go a long way to increase treatment capacity and make services more affordable for the thousands of people in Appalachia who are suffering from opioid addiction and want to recover.

It’s estimated that we lose 78 people each day to this disease — and every day Congress neglects to act on the budget to fund this effort, the death toll continues to rise. In order to expand access to treatment and prevention resources, it’s up to Congress to put real muscle behind this fight. By making real investments, expanding strategies that we know work, and mobilizing partnerships at every level across the country, we can turn the tide of this epidemic and save lives.

Tom Vilsack is the U.S. secretary of agriculture, chair of the White House Rural Council, and leader of President Barack Obama’s rural opioid initiative. Terry McAuliffe is the governor of Virginia. They are holding a town hall meeting in Abingdon on Thursday to discuss opioids.

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