Obama to announce scale-up in fight against opioids

President Obama on Tuesday will announce new steps to ramp up the fight against opioid abuse while pressing for millions more dollars to stem the epidemic.

Obama will lay out several policy changes and new grants during the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, which has been organized each of the last five years by a top House Republican, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

But without funding, the administration’s new actions are limited. Obama will announce just one new policy proposal rule — allowing doctors to prescribe addiction-fighting drugs to more patients at a time — and a new task force to evaluate insurance coverage of mental health and drug abuse benefits.

He will also announce that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has finalized a policy that will ensure 23 million people in Medicaid receive the same access to mental-health and drug-addiction benefits as people with private health plans. That policy was first proposed in April 2015 and has been “a top priority for this administration,” according to Dr. Richard Frank, an HHS assistant secretary.

The administration will also announce about $120 million worth of grants, about $94 million which has already been promised to community health centers under ObamaCare.

The steps taken by the White House have been almost entirely separate from Congress’s efforts to fight drug abuse this year.

Earlier this month, the Senate approved a bipartisan bill that creates a national task force, shifts funding to community organizations dedicated to fighting addiction and increases the availability of naloxone, a drug to treat opioid overdose. That bill doesn't create any new funding, however, and was nearly derailed by Democrats who believed that funding was necessary.

The most substantial part of Obama’s strategy unveiled Monday is the aim to expand access to medication-assisted treatment.   

The administration is planning to ease rules for doctors who prescribe an addiction-fighting drug called buprenorphine, which can be coupled with counseling and behavioral therapy to speed up a person’s recovery.

Under the new rules, doctors would be allowed to prescribe the drug for up to 200 patients — double the current patient limit. The change would amount to “tens of thousands of people” receiving treatment, the administration said.

The remarks will be his most high-profile to date on drug abuse. Obama will be accompanied by his top health leaders from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden.

He last spoke extensively about the topic during a speech in West Virginia last October, when he promised a more aggressive approach for prescriber training within federal agencies. Those agencies’ goals are already 75 percent completed, the administration said, noting it is ahead of schedule.

Since that October speech, the White House released a budget calling for $1.1 billion to fight drug addiction — a funding request that he will mention specifically on Tuesday.

Two federal agencies — the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration — also released new policies designed to cut back on doctors prescribing powerful painkillers and better review overall drug approvals.