Vilsack takes stand on opioids


By Mitch McAndrew

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Tuesday proposed spending $1.1 billion in additional opioid-addiction treatment funding.

The increase, included in President Obama’s proposed fiscal 2017 federal budget, makes Iowa eligible for up to $4 million over two years to broaden access to treatment for opioid-use disorders. Congressional action and the strength of the state’s application will determine the final amount of funding allocated.

The former Iowa governor and several Iowa community leaders involved in reforming addiction treatment said the increase comes at a crucial point in the Hawkeye State’s struggle with opioid and heroin addiction.

“If we do not get adequate resources or treatment engaged at this point in Iowa, we’re going to have a runaway addiction problem with heroin, which we don’t have currently,” said Mayor Jim Erb of Charles City in a Tuesday conference call. “But we will sure as shooting get to that point very shortly.”

Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, who chairs the Central Iowa Drug Task Force, said heroin’s presence continues to grow in Iowa.

The task force seized four grams of heroin in fiscal 2014. The next two years saw rapid increases; 22 grams were seized in fiscal 2015, and 82 grams were seized in fiscal 2016.

The addiction problem Iowa faces is part of a larger national epidemic that has seen heroin addiction and overdose numbers soar. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2014 than any year on record, and more than 60 percent involved an opioid.

Every day, an average of 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed in the U.S., and 3,900 people initiate non-medical use of prescription opioids, according to the report.

Vilsack said the USDA is fighting opioid addiction through four measures: prevention, treatment, recovery, and reform.

The plan includes encouraging more thorough training in prescribing opioids, expanding medication-assisted treatments through grants, and redirecting people out of the criminal-justice system and into treatment options, Vilsack said.

“We’re making sure that people understand this is a disease; it’s not a character flaw,” Vilsack said. “We need to start thinking of diseases from the head up in the same way that we currently think of diseases from the head down.”

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