U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack remembers his adoptive mother struggling with alcohol and prescription drug addictions when he was growing up. She tried to commit suicide a couple of times. And he nearly flunked out of high school as his parents separated.
The former Iowa governor and former Democratic presidential candidate said his mother eventually got “an incredible amount of help” and didn’t drink again for the rest of her life. Vilsack’s grades shot up and he landed on the honor roll when his parents reunited. The experience, he said, taught him drug and alcohol addictions are diseases — not character flaws — that require responses from whole communities.
Vilsack recently shared his story in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as he prepared to speak at a national drug abuse summit in Atlanta Monday. President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion Tuesday at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, recently appointed Vilsack to lead his “Rural America Opioid Initiative.”
“It is important for people to understand,” Vilsack told the AJC, “there needs to be a community commitment where people who are similarly situated can get together and meet and discuss their challenges, discuss the temptations they have and help each other get through a tough period, a tough stretch.”
His interagency initiative is aimed at 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.
At the summit Monday, Vilsack plans to announce a series of town hall meetings and the availability of $1.4 million in grants. They are aimed at collecting information about the extent of the problem and finding ways to combat it. Vilsack cited numerous causes: poverty, workplace injuries and a sharp rise in doctors prescribing painkillers. Among the possible solutions, he said, are increased training for doctors for prescribing pain medication, providing emergency workers with an antidote to heroin overdoses, and expanding opportunities for addicts to get medication-assisted treatment.