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Obama Administration Takes Aim at Epidemic of Heroin, Painkiller Abuse

New initiative involves government, medical groups, media, drug store chains and more

By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 21, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced a major new initiative aimed at fighting the ongoing epidemic of prescription painkiller and heroin abuse.

Speaking Wednesday in Charleston, W. Va. -- an area hit hard by the crisis -- Obama said that heroin and prescription drug abuse is widespread and "could happen to any of us."

As reported by USA Today, Obama noted that "120 Americans die every day from drug overdoses," and most involve prescription drugs. "That's more than from car crashes," he added.

Now, dozens of major medical groups, leading pharmacy chains, law enforcement agencies, media outlets and anti-drug groups will take part in the new government-led effort.

In 2016 alone, $133 million is earmarked towards the initiative, the White House said in a statement.

"Prescription drug abuse and heroin use have taken a heartbreaking toll on too many Americans and their families, while straining law enforcement and treatment programs," the White House said in a statement. The new programs are "aimed at addressing the prescription drug abuse and heroin epidemic."

The widespread use of these so-called "opioid" drugs -- pills such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet, along with heroin -- continues unabated across the United States.

One study, reported Oct. 13 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, outlined the scope of the problem. It found that the rate of fatal overdoses from prescription narcotics has almost doubled -- from 4.5 out of every 100,000 Americans in 2003 to 7.8 per 100,000 by 2013.

The new federal government initiative will work in partnership with dozens of groups representing "providers" -- doctors and other health care staff who are gatekeepers for prescription narcotic painkillers. Some of the groups involved include the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Nurses Association, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Pain Society.

Groups like these will work with the federal government to help more than 540,000 health care workers undergo training specific to opioid prescriptions, the White House said. Another 4 million health care providers will be targeted for "awareness messaging" on better prescribing practices.

There will also be funding to double the number of health care providers certified to dispense drugs such as naloxone and buprenorphine, which help addicts wean themselves from opioids.

Major drug store chains are getting involved as well, the White House said. For example, CVS Health will now widen ease of access to naloxone across more states, and Rite Aid plans to train 6,000 more pharmacists on naloxone use over the next year. Similar efforts are underway by groups representing pharmacists nationwide.

With regard to law enforcement, police organizations nationwide are ramping up efforts to educate members about how to either prevent or spot/react to overdoses from heroin or prescription painkillers, according to the White House.

The government's new initiative also includes reaching out to major media to get its message out to the public. For example, networks such as ABC, CBS, Turner Broadcasting, and print outlets such as The New York Times are donating $20 million in advertising space or air time to an anti-drug campaign from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the White House said. WebMD, Medscape and the popular Dr. Oz show are also planning to devote more space and airtime to the issue.

Schools are a major focus of the campaign, so groups representing school athletics and PTAs are a prime focus of the new initiative, the White House added.

Finally, numerous government agencies -- including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the office of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy -- are all initiating new efforts focused on reducing prescription drug and heroin abuse.

Earlier in October, Murthy announced that his office's first-ever Surgeon General Report on substance abuse, addiction and health is slated for publication in 2016.

In a statement released Wednesday, Dr. Patrice Harris, chair-elect of the American Medical Association, said that the group is "extremely pleased that President Obama is undertaking initiatives to halt the nation's opioid crisis."

"As physicians, we know that it is our responsibility to help provide a clear road map that will help bring an end to this epidemic," Harris said. "And we are dedicated to showing the leadership our patients need and deserve to once-and-for-all bring an end to this public health crisis."

More information

Find out more about the White House's plans here.

SOURCES: Oct. 21, 2015, statement, The White House; Oct. 21, 2015, statement, American Medical Association; USA Today

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