CHARLESTON, W.Va. — President Barack Obama made clear the reason he thinks every American, every West Virginian, every politician and every parent needs to get involved in the effort to stop drug abuse: “You don’t know if it is going to be your child.”
Addiction has no home or income level, said Obama, explaining drug abuse is a problem for adults and children from every income and social bracket. “It’s no us and them problem … this is an American problem.”
Obama traveled to West Virginia on Wednesday to discuss prescription drug abuse and the growing heroin epidemic. He also announced new federal initiatives to battle those problems. He spoke to a packed house of guests at the East End Family Resource Center in the Roosevelt Neighborhood Center building — located near the center of what was Charleston’s black neighborhood before construction of the interstates and urban renewal efforts in the 1960s razed much of it. The center is just a block away from the intersection of Ruffler Avenue and East Washington Street, which has been the site of many drug arrests and other drug incidents in Charleston. It’s also only a few blocks away from the stately homes of the city’s East End and West Virginia’s Capitol.
Invited guests, public officials and the media filled the center, with neighborhood residents filling front yards, sidewalks and streets outside, hoping to see the President during his visit.
Obama thanked state, city and neighborhood officials for hosting the event, but he make it clear the drug problem was everyone’s concern.
“If you are a parent … you can relate. … one of my favorite sayings I ever heard about having children is ‘it’s like having your heart walking around outside of your body.’ All you care about is making sure they’re OK, but they’re so vulnerable. As a parent … how do I make sure they are going to be OK,” Obama said.
“This is happening to families everywhere with great parents who love their kids …,” Obama said of drug abuse. “We have to understand there is no us and them. This is all of us in every school, in every community, in every neighborhood. It could be your child. The first thing to do is to understand this is an American problem that cuts across groups and political affiliations. Once we understand that, then we’re in a position to deal with it together.”
Joining Obama at Wednesday’s event were Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and numerous state legislators and public officials. Guests included an audience of educators, medical experts and law enforcement officials. Also present was WVU professor John Temple, whose newly released book “American Pain” outlines the largest painkiller distribution ring in the United States and looks at the massive rise in the use and abuse of narcotic painkillers over the past two decades.
Joining the President for the discussion on the drug problem were Michael Botticelli; the White House’s director of National Drug Control Policy, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a native of Hinton; Dr. Michael Brumage, executive director and health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and Putnam County; Cary Dixon, who has a family member struggling with a substance use disorder; Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster, who has served in the City of Charleston Police Department for 20 years and is overseeing establishment of both a naloxone program for overdose reversal as well as a syringe service (needle exchange) program, both of which will be fully operational in the next month.
Gov. Tomblin opened the program, outlining the drug problem in West Virginia and recounting the state’s efforts to battle the drug problem, including a recently implemented drug abuse hotline: 844-HELP4WV.
Sen. Joe Manchin thanked the President for visiting the state to discuss a problem that “is destroying families and communities across our beautiful state, the dedicated work our citizens are doing to save our communities and the critical help we need to stop this epidemic.”
Obama was introduced by Jordan Coughlen, who has been in recovery for 22 months from an opioid use disorder, and is starting the first Young People in Recovery chapter in West Virginia. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Social Work at West Virginia University, while working full-time as a Peer Recovery Specialist for Youth Services System, Inc., a local organization that supports at-risk youth.
Obama thanked Coughlen, Dixon and audience member David Grubb for sharing their stories.
Grubb, a Charleston resident who had submitted one of the hundreds of question collected by The Charleston Gazette-Mail, was introduced by Gazette-Mail publisher Susan Chilton Shumate.
Grubb told the President that his daughter had overdosed in August but survived thanks to the efforts of his wife, the police and EMTs. His daughter is now in treatment in Michigan. Grubb asked Obama what can be done to provide more treatment facilities and programs in West Virginia and around the country.
Obama said the United States has under-invested in treatment and care, but said there is growing bi-partisan support for more care and treatment facilities. “We’re at the point where we are realizing the need for more treatment facilities.”
In this opening statements, Obama told the audience of new steps to help stem the flow of prescription painkillers and ease the path to treatment for people fighting opioid addiction. The programs are outlined at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/21/presidential-memorandum-addressing-prescription-drug-abuse-and-heroin.
Wednesday’s program in Charleston lasted more than an hour with each of the panel sharing insight. Obama applauded West Virginia and Charleston for efforts to battle the issue, stating that some of the programs in West Virginia should be considered for adoption by other states and the federal government.
Before arriving in Charlston, Obama on Wednesday issued a memorandum to federal departments and agencies with two directives:
— requiring federal agencies to provide training to doctors and nurses who work for the federal government on how to properly prescribe opioid medications, like oxycodone;
— requiring federal agencies that provide health insurance to review their health plans to see if there are barriers or restrictions that prevent patients from accessing medication-assisted treatments for opioid abuse, like Suboxone.
Michael Botticelli, during an interview Tuesday with David Gutman of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, said the memorandum outlines “effective strategies”.
“We want to ensure that the federal government is doing all it can to minimize the magnitude of the epidemic, but also kind of model what we think are good practices,” Botticelli said.
Obama also announced commitments from more than 40 health care groups — including the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association — to help make treatment options more available and to train more doctors in properly prescribing opioids. There also are new agreements with media companies, including CBS, ABC and Google, to provide millions of dollars in free ad space for public service announcements about prescription drug abuse.
West Virginia is one of only 10 states that already require additional training for doctors and nurses who prescribe opioid painkillers.
“Many of the issues that we see around prescription drug misuse, and subsequent heroin use, stem from the over-prescribing of prescription pain medication,” said Botticelli, who has been in recovery from substance abuse issues himself for 26 years. “We believe that this is a model for other prescribers.”
The 40 health care organizations have committed to providing training in opioid prescribing for 540,000 doctors and nurses nationwide in the next two years. They also have agreed to double the number of providers that can prescribe naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. CVS and Rite Aid also have committed to increasing the availability of naloxone. The national Fraternal Order of Police will give its 300,000 members cards to instruct them on how to respond to overdoses.
Don Smith is the executive director of the West Virginia Press Association. He can be reached by calling 304-342-1011.