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Obama Announces New Efforts To Tackle Nation's Opioid Problem


Today, President Obama said the government would expand access to treatment for the growing number of people addicted to opioids. It's a class of drugs that includes both prescription painkillers and illegal heroin. Obama spoke in Atlanta at a national summit on drug abuse. Michell Eloy of member station WABE was there.

MICHELL ELOY, BYLINE: The president began by listening to the story of Crystle Oertle, an Ohio resident and mother of two. Oertle the told the president she started using Vicodin recreationally around the age of 20.


CRYSTLE OERTLE: Eventually, I needed something stronger than the Vicodin. I was doing OxyContins, things like that, until then it eventually led into me doing heroin.

ELOY: Oertle says she'd shoot heroin at her home in the bathroom, while her kids were at home, while they were at school. She says she tried to quit multiple times but couldn't get through the withdrawal symptoms. What worked for her and helped her stay clean for the past year was medication-assisted treatments with a drug called Suboxone combined with therapy.


OERTLE: And that's where I go, and it's very intense. It's a lot of group counseling with other people that are in treatment and then individual counseling, talking to a doctor. It's really worked for me this time.

ELOY: The president focused a lot on broadening access to this kind of medication-assisted treatment, using drugs to fight cravings coupled with the kind of counseling and behavior therapy that Oertle says worked for her.


BARACK OBAMA: What we do know is that there are steps that can be taken that will help people battle through addiction and get onto to the other side. And right now that's under-resourced.

ELOY: The Obama administration is also proposing a new rule to double the number of patients a doctor can treat with Buprenorphine. It's one of a few drugs used to fight addiction to opioids. Currently, doctors who've been approved to prescribe the drug can only treat a maximum of 100 patients.

The new rule would bump up that patient limit to 200, which the White House says would expand treatment to tens of thousands of people. Mr. Obama said the opioid problem is a public health issue, not just a criminal justice problem.


OBAMA: What we have to recognize is in this global economy of ours that the most important thing we can do is to reduce demand for drugs. And the only way that we reduce demand is if we're providing treatment.

ELOY: But there's a big gap between those who need treatment for addiction and those who can actually get it. The administration estimated that four years ago only about half of the more than two million people who abused or were dependent on opioids could access medication-assisted treatments.


OBAMA: We've got to make sure that in every county across America that's available. And the problem we have right now is that treatment is greatly underfunded.

ELOY: The president's new proposals come on the heels of a budget request for more than $1 billion in new funding to fight the opioid epidemic. The majority of those funds are earmarked for expanding addiction treatment services like those he discussed. In 2014, the U.S. saw a record number of overdose deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency says opioids contributed to more than 28,000 deaths that year. For NPR News, I'm Michell Eloy in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michell Eloy
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