Policy

Obama: Opioid Treatment Too Scant, 'Underresourced'

GOP lawmakers call president AWOL on anti-drug fight

President Obama speaks at at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit Tuesday in Atlanta. (AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama on Tuesday called America's fight against prescription drug and heroin abuse "underresourced" as he tries to convince Republicans to fund his plan to fight the national epidemic.  

Speaking at a summit organized by House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., Obama said the country needs an "an all-hands-on-deck approach."  

"The problem that we have" is in many parts of the United States, opioid and heroin treatment programs are "underfunded right now," the president said at the conference in Atlanta. And treatment is "particularly underfunded in some rural areas," where addiction rates are high. Obama said he came to the summit in hopes it will put public pressure on Congress to act. The idea is to force House and Senate Republicans to approve funding the White House wants this year, much of it for treatment programs.  

As Republicans continue raising concerns about what kinds of initiatives Washington should be funding, Obama harked back to a plan he proposed in his fiscal 2017 budget that called for $1.1 billion in spending next fiscal year to help the federal and state governments fight addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.  

“Until the money comes through,” Obama said, “it’s just an idea.”  

Conveniently for Obama, Rogers, who was seated in the front row, helps control the federal pocketbook. Obama used the occasion to continue a plea for bipartisanship on the issue that figured in his final State of the Union address.  

“I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse,” the president said in January. “We just might surprise the cynics again.”  

Opioids, a category that includes prescription painkillers and heroin, contributed to nearly 29,000 deaths in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 10,500 fatalities that year stemmed specifically from heroin use, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.  

As Obama’s appearance in Atlanta began, some Republican lawmakers issued statements applauding his efforts. Many were senators from opioid- and heroin-riddled states who voted for a year-end spending bill that contained $400 million to combat it and another measure this month aimed at expanding treatment.  

But other GOP members slammed the president, who they say has done too little to combat the epidemic.  

“While the President is addressing his first national drug forum in seven years, unfortunately he’s been AWOL regarding the problem of drug overdoses and illegal narcotics in the United States,” Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., said in a statement.  

“Unfortunately, he’s also been sending the wrong message,” Mica added. “In 2014, President Obama sent a clear message to Americans and our young people about marijuana use, saying, ‘I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as … not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked … I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.’”  

But Obama told the summit that anti-prescription drug and heroin abuse efforts have been “a top priority of ours for some time.” The president also is expected to announce a set of administrative actions that will not require congressional approval. A major thrust of the administration and congressional Democrats has been to use federal dollars to help expand treatment for most vulnerable populations.  

Obama reiterated some of the themes he has turned to before when pushing for congressional action, with the House due back from a recess period with a Senate-passed anti-opioid bill awaiting action. But his major thrust was arguing for expanded -- and better-funded treatment programs.  

In the audience Tuesday were individuals who are recovering from opioid and heroin abuse and some of their family members, as well as medical and law enforcement officials. Obama was joined onstage by two recovering addicts and a physician who has treated similar patients, some of whom died of overdoses.  

One was Crystal Oertle, a 35-year-old mother of two from Ohio who has been clean for a year, said she was heartened to hear a sitting U.S. president use the phrase “the disease of addiction.”  

Leana Wen, Baltimore City health commissioner, said that too often those with substance abuse problems are told treatment is unavailable. She told a story about one woman who was sent home from a Baltimore hospital and returned shortly after in dire condition due to an overdose. “We were unable to revive her,” Wen said.  

The Atlanta summit came several weeks after the Senate passed a bill that would authorize grants to states to expand their treatment programs and increase access to naloxone, an overdose prevention drug.  

That legislation, which passed 94-1, also would give the Justice Department additional tools to combat drug trafficking.  

Partisan squabbling could sink the Senate’s measure. So, too, could a truncated election-year legislative calendar. GOP members in both chambers have questions about how the funds would be spent, and want to dole out any additional funding during the annual appropriations process.  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.