President Barack Obama said more must be done to combat opioid addiction, using a summit in Atlanta on Tuesday to unveil new measures aimed at curbing a drug overdose epidemic raging across Georgia and the rest of the nation.
Speaking at a panel discussion, Obama noted that more people are now killed from opioid overdoses than traffic accidents.
The Democrat touched down at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta-International Airport at 1:30 p.m. and was greeted by cheers from a gathering of supporters.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson followed him off the plane. Obama embraced U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Fulton County Chairman John Eaves, who were waiting on the tarmac.
The president delighted dozens of fans waiting behind a metal gate, walking over to shake hands and make small talk.
“Amazing. He was so genuine. He walked right up to us,” Sajani Patel of Atlanta said excitedly.
The president’s visit to Atlanta is expected to last less than three hours. It could nonetheless tie up the city’s notoriously-bad traffic. He is set to highlight a proposed rule that would allow doctors prescribing buprenorphine for drug addictions to increase the number of patients they see from 100 to 200. Obama will also point out $94 million in new federal funding to expand medication-assisted treatment at 271 community health centers across the country.
Further, Obama is signing a new memorandum Tuesday, directing the creation of an interagency task force for expanding access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. And he is announcing $11 million in funding for states to buy a drug overdose prevention medication called naloxone and to train emergency workers how to use it.
“The president has made clear that addressing this epidemic is a priority for his administration, and today’s actions represent further steps to expand access to treatment, prevent overdose deaths and increase community prevention strategies,” the White House said.
Obama will announce the new measures during a panel discussion at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit. The summit is focused on fighting a prescription painkiller and heroin overdose epidemic that killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, more than any year on record. At least half of those deaths involved prescription drugs.
Georgia is among 14 states that have seen statistically significant increases in the rate of drug overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014, 1,206 people died from such overdoses in the Peach State, up from 1,098 the year before, a 9.8 percent increase. Georgia’s death rate per 100,000 residents rose by 10.2, from 10.8 to 11.9 during the same timeframe.
Delivering the keynote address at the summit Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked about how his adoptive mother struggled with alcohol and prescription drug addictions when he was growing up. The former Iowa governor and former Democratic presidential candidate said his late mother eventually got help from a 30-day treatment program and never drank again for the rest of her life. The experience, he said, taught him drug and alcohol addictions are diseases — not character flaws — that require responses from whole communities. Obama appointed Vilsack this year to lead his “Rural America Opioid Initiative.”