HHS unveils $100M effort to combat drug addictions

Getty Images

The Obama administration is planning to devote an additional $100 million to fight the national drug addiction epidemic as deaths from substances like heroin and prescription painkillers reach record-breaking levels.

About one-third of that funding will be devoted to addiction-fighting medications, which have been the cornerstone of the government’s approach to fighting opioid use.

ADVERTISEMENT
“This is money that will make a difference in your states, so let’s do it together,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told a group of the nation’s governors gathered in West Virginia.

“So you have a sense — that’s large,” she said, veering from her prepared remarks.

Burwell has made fighting opioid addictions a key part of her tenure, underscoring the crisis that her home state of West Virginia has experienced as the number of drug addicts — and deaths — rises.

Heroin overdose deaths have quadrupled from 2002 to 2013, and doubled between 2011 and 2013 alone, according to an HHS study released earlier this month.

The new funding, which was included in the president’s 2016 budget proposal earlier this spring, will go to community health centers in 11 states that are on the frontlines of the fight against opioid addictions.

Already, Burwell has put an emphasis on medications like buprenorphine that are proven to help addicts deal with withdrawal symptoms and cravings. But they are also costly.

The government has also faced rising costs of Naloxone, an antidote to heroin overdoses, that is raising questions about its long-term use.

Burwell has met with multiple governors from both parties, most recently with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), to shape the drug combating strategy.

The administration is also taking steps to make it easier for states to get waivers that allow them to use “innovative treatment approaches” and still receive federal funding.

Still, the administration’s pledge to increase funding is uncertain. The funds must be appropriated by Congress, and Burwell acknowledged that this year’s budget for her department will be “some of the lowest levels of funding in a decade.”

Burwell also announced a new fast-track process for paperwork related to Medicaid and CHIP programs, which she said would “reduce the administrative burden on states and the federal government.”

Burwell, who has broad bipartisan support, has worked closely with governors on difficult issues from Ebola to the Affordable Care Act in the first year of her tenure.

One of the toughest political issues she has confronted in states has been Medicaid expansion.

“You all know that I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t raise the issue of expanding health care coverage for many working citizens in your states,” she said.

“I think you know what I’m talking about,” she said to laughter, again straying from her remarks.

Thirty states have chosen to expand Medicaid under ObamaCare, while many remain staunchly opposed — drawing a new line in the sand in the 2016 Republican presidential race, which includes three current GOP governors. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie both opted to expand Medicaid, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have refused. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is also vying for the nomination, also refused.

"If every state expanded Medicaid, more than 4 million of Americans could have access to quality, affordable health care. These are lives that will be changed, and yes, even saved by that care," she said.