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Clinton’s campaign will make substance abuse, mental health key issues

Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to make substance abuse and mental health key issues of her campaign. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This post has been updated. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton's policy advisers held discussions with stakeholders in Iowa and New Hampshire who are involved in helping people dealing with substance abuse and mental illness, as Clinton looks to make those issues a large part of her 2016 presidential campaign.

Clinton senior policy advisers Ann O'Leary and Maya Harris participated in Google hangouts Thursday and Friday with treatment providers, law enforcement officers, local politicians and others in Iowa and New Hampshire, a Clinton aide said. The groups discussed the scourge of opiate addiction, which is decimating New Hampshire and is a growing problem in Iowa, and the use of methamphetamines in Iowa.

Clinton's campaign said she has asked her policy advisers to come up with creative ways to reach out to stakeholders in Iowa and New Hampshire about substance abuse and mental health issues and plans to use the information to develop policy proposals in the coming weeks and months.

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Clinton has been asked about substance abuse by voters. Pamela Livengood of Keene, N.H. -- who has guardianship of her 5-year-old grandson because her daughter, who is struggling with addiction, can't care for him -- asked Clinton about substance abuse.

“This is a quiet epidemic, and it is striking in small towns and rural areas as much as any big city,” Clinton said.

She also brought up the issue at a house gathering in Mason City, Iowa.

“The drug epidemic, meth, pills in Iowa, and then I got to New Hampshire and at my very first coffee shop meeting I heard about the heroin epidemic in New Hampshire,” Clinton said. “This is tearing families apart, but it is below the surface. People aren’t talking about it, because it’s something that is hard to deal with,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths involving heroin increased from 3,041 in 2008 to 8,260 in 2013, the latest statistics available.

A Clinton adviser said the candidate thinks that treatment facilities must be adequately funded and insurance companies should approach treating addiction as they would any other chronic disease. This person said that Clinton's conversations on the trail and her advisers' discussions with people working on the issue have made the subject a priority for her campaign.

People with addiction have found that treatment facilities are full and insurance companies won't cover the cost. The Affordable Care Act mandates that insurance plans make substance abuse and mental health treatment essential benefits, but treatment is often hard to come by and barriers to accessing it remain. A report issued last month by the National Alliance on Mental Illness showed that patients are continuing to be denied care.

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Marti Anderson, an Iowa state representative who is a social worker, said the four participants on the Iowa hangout with O'Leary were asked to talk about their concerns and what they think can help.

"I think the overarching discussion was that there needs to be more treatment," Anderson said. "It was more of a listening post."

Anderson said the group talked about helping low-level drug offenders who are in prison.

"We’ve been doing a war on drugs since I was a teenager, and frankly I’m an older woman now," said Anderson, 64. "And it’s not working."

Tym Rourke, chairman of New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan's (D) Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, participated in the New Hampshire call with Harris and six others. He thinks Clinton and the campaign are surprised by how much substance abuse has affected Americans.

"I sense they were surprised," Rourke said, "with the depths of the problem and how lacking we are with treatment access."

This article has been corrected; Clinton's policy advisers held hangouts Thursday and Friday, not just Friday.