For U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the opioid painkiller epidemic in America is anything but abstract. It’s a deeply personal problem that afflicted his own family growing up in rural Iowa.
“When I was a child, my mother suffered addiction to prescription painkillers,” he told attendees of a recent meeting in Columbia, Mo. “What I didn’t know then that I now know is it wasn’t a character flaw. But there’s a stigma to this that isn’t attached to other diseases. We don’t talk about this. We don’t want other people to know about this.”
Quietly, opioid painkiller addiction has proven deadly over and over again. Nearly 10 million U.S. adults reported misusing prescription opioids in 2012-13. In 2014, drug overdose deaths totaled 28,648 – more than are killed in motor vehicle accidents.
It’s a problem that Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) says the problem has invaded city and country alike.
“It’s an epidemic in this country – we are in the middle of a health crisis,” she says. “Every community is looking at this problem. It’s reaching every nook and cranny of our state. It’e everywhere.”
Complicating the matter, McCaskill points out that Missouri is the only U.S. state that doesn’t have a prescription drug monitoring program, which has amplified the problem in the Show-Me State.
“Everyone knows you can come to Missouri and not get caught,” she says.
According to Vilsack, 80% of new heroin users got their first introduction using an opioid that was lawfully prescribed. What starts innocently enough can end in tragedy years later.
Vilsack says the Obama Administration is working to tackle this issue through a variety of evidence-based prevention programs, prescription drug monitoring, pill take-back events, medication-assisted treatment and increased availability of the overdose reversal drug, naloxone. Since 2014, USDA has provided millions in funds to develop or improve mental health facilities and set up distance learning and telemedicine projects in rural areas.
Vilsack’s stop in Missouri was one in a series of rural town hall meetings across the country to address the problem and discuss possible solutions. He says his mother, who eventually overcame her own addictions, gives him a source of hope.
“She provided an example to me of never losing faith,” he says.