- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

President Obama moved Tuesday to rescue Americans who’ve been swept up by an epidemic of heroin and prescription opioid use, proposing that doctors be allowed to treat more addicts and demanding Congress pony up more money for an overdose-reversing drug.

The White House also said it wants to fund efforts to crack down on the heroin trade, educate rural residents about the dangers of opioids and put substance abuse treatment on par with traditional medical benefits for 23 million people on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Mr. Obama outlined his proposals at an annual summit on prescription drug abuse and heroin in Atlanta hosted by Operation UNITE, a nonprofit launched by Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican.

At the same time, more than 60 medical schools said they will require students to learn about new guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control for writing prescriptions.

Tuesday’s blitz was part of a series of formal efforts to stem the tide of opioid and heroin abuse, which is causing more deaths than traffic accidents do in some parts of the country. Unintentional overdose deaths from prescription painkillers nearly quadruped from 1999 to 2013, and heroin-related deaths increased 39 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Experts say the epidemic is striking every corner of the country with no regard to age, gender or socioeconomic status.”The good news is because it is having an impact on so many people, we are seeing a bipartisan interest in addressing the problem,” said Mr. Obama at the summit, where he heard from a recovering addict who started out on prescription painkillers and shifted to heroin.

The Senate has already passed its own legislation to push therapeutic alternatives to opioids and to disburse naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.Mr. Obama on Tuesday said the bill did not provide enough funding. He called for $1.1 billion in his fiscal 2017 budget to address the epidemic, though GOP leaders have said they appropriated hundreds of millions for the effort last year.

Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who co-authored the Senate bill, said if Mr. Obama were serious about fighting the problem, he would be lobbying for the legislation to get to his desk.

“The White House can do its part by calling on the House of Representatives to pass this bipartisan bill immediately and send it to the president for his signature,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s actions on Tuesday focused in part on regulatory steps his administration could take without Congress.

One proposal would let qualified doctors treat up to 200 patients a year with buprenorphine, a key drug used to help people quit opioids. The current limit is 100 patients.

Prescribing buprenorphine for opioid addiction was a relatively new practice when Congress established the program in 2000, so lawmakers wanted to tread carefully by limiting the number of patients a qualified doctor could treat while empowering HHS to lift the cap in the future.

Years later the administration and senators say there are long waiting lists for doctors who’ve reached their 100-patient limit. Mr. Portman said Mr. Obama’s push to raise the limit to 200 was a good start, but he is “disappointed” that he didn’t push for 500.

Also Tuesday the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finalized “parity” regulations that require plans contracting with Medicaid to disclose, upon request, what type of mental health and substance abuse benefits they provide and disclose any reason they deny payment or reimbursement for such services.

“Today’s rule eliminates a barrier to coverage for the millions of Americans who for too long faced a system that treated behavioral health as an unequal priority,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said. “It represents a critical step in our effort to ensure that everyone has access to the care they need.”

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