The White House will announce Friday that President Obama is appointing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, his Cabinet’s longest-serving member, to lead a new interagency effort focused on addressing rural America’s struggle with heroin and opioid abuse as well as other pressing problems.
The decision to centralize federal decision-making on drug abuse as well as other major problems in rural areas — rising suicide rates, declining physical and mental health, and increased financial stress — comes as addiction to heroin and other opiates has become a crisis in many areas.
In an interview Thursday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the work Vilsack has done since 2011 chairing the White House Rural Council, a group focused on these areas, has given him “firsthand experience” seeing how substance abuse and poverty have continued to keep Americans in some parts of the country from making headway.
“The whole point is to have the secretary of agriculture look across the [federal government] to see what unique capabilities agencies have to invest in blowing through these obstacles to opportunity in rural communities.”
The Rural Council encompasses 15 departments and multiple agencies, including Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs and the Office of National Drug Policy, among others.
Heroin and prescription opioid drug overdoses kill about 30,000 people a year — heroin-related death rates increased 28 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone — and state, local and federal law enforcement officials have begun to rethink how best to treat addicts who often have trouble getting treatment.
And as opioid addiction has emerged as a more pressing political issue — with presidential candidates from both parties addressing the concerns of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that will cast votes on the parties’ 2016 nominees next month — both GOP and Democratic lawmakers have shown a willingness to expand federal support for tackling it.
The budget agreement struck last month provided the administration with more than $400 million to address the epidemic, an increase of more than $100 million from the previous year. It also cut language barring the use of federal funds for needle-exchange programs, a move that many public health advocates had sought.
Vilsack will unveil the new initiative during a town hall discussion on Friday at Ohio State Universirty in Columbus, where he will be discussing the expansion of the administration’s rural-development efforts in 11 counties experiencing persistent poverty in the part of Appalachia that extends into southern Ohio.
In an interview Thursday, Vilsack said that while any long-term solution to the problem will have to be pursued by the next president, the current administration could help develop a comprehensive strategy and elevate the issue in the American consciousness. Obama held a forum on the subject in October in Charleston, W.Va., a state where more than one-third of the overall injury deaths stem from drug overdoses.
“For me, as presidential candidates talk about this, the importance to me is to bring this issue out of the shadows,” Vilsack said, noting that the “rugged” image of independence often prized in rural America “really makes it hard for people to seek help.”
Vilsack, whose adoptive mother struggled with addictions to alcohol and prescription medication, said he was optimistic that there could be bipartisan support because it affects so many families.
Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties, said in an interview that the new initiative is “very timely and much-needed federal attention.” He described the increase in drug and alcohol abuse in rural areas as “symptoms” of an economy where there is more automation and a lower need for workers.
“To me, it really boils down to the lack of economic opportunity in so many of these areas,” he said, adding that although the administration has looked at the issue in the past, Vilsack’s appointment shows “more presidential focus.”
In many cases, state and local groups are banding together to try to combat rising overdoses. The National Association of Counties and several other state and local government groups announced Thursday that they have successfully negotiated with drug companies to purchase Narcan nasal spray, which can counteract the effects of an overdose, at a 40 percent discount.
Mark Publicker, past president of the Northern New England Society of Addiction Medicine, said that while he was “utterly pessimistic” that a government task force could have a major impact on the problem, he had been encouraged by some of the efforts the administration had been taking to address the fact that the rural poor are “most stricken by the epidemic and have the least access to treatment.”
“There’s value in identifying the fact that we’re dealing with a multidimensional, complex problem that deserves more than the simple answers that are being floated,” said Publicker, who treats addiction patients in rural Maine.