Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hosts town hall on opioid epidemic

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COLUMBIA - A town hall at Stephens College on Friday centered on the nation's opioid epidemic. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been in Missouri for two days to discuss the need for resources in combating rural opioid addiction.

He said more than 10 million Americans are abusing prescription drugs, and over two million have become addicted. 

"80 percent of new heroine users in this country get that introduction down that road using an opioid," he said. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill introduced Secretary Vilsack to the stage. She said opioid addiction is a big challenge for the state.

"Missouri has become a haven for prescription drugs," McCaskill said." "Everyone knows you can come to Missouri and you're not going to get caught."

Congress passed legislation earlier this week aimed at the opioid addiction crisis, but Vilsack said the work is not done. 

"Republicans in Congress voted against efforts by Senator McCaskill and others to add new funding for treatment, including up to $17 million for Missouri, to address this crisis. With these funds, we could provide more treatment facilities, more hospital beds, more access to providers. We cannot afford to wait," he said.

Both McCaskill and Vilsack said Missouri is the only state in the country without a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP). Vilsack said the impact of this goes beyond the state.

Vilsack said, "Frankly, its not just about Missouri. it's also about the good folks from my home state of Iowa, and every state that surrounds Missouri. We get negatively impacted because you don't have a monitoring system."

He said, "From 1993 to the year 2013, the last year that we have data, we have seen a 400 percent increase in opioid prescriptions. We now have over 259 million prescriptions being filled on an annual basis, that's one for virtually every adult in the United States of America." 

The Obama administration has focused on five separate responses to the opioid addiction crisis, he said.

He said not enough people are on the ground who are well trained and qualified in treatment assistance.

"First we recognize we have to do a better job of prevention," he said.

Vilsack said the administration is working with medical associations to encourage new prescriber training.

"The goal is to train over 540,000 physicians in the new way of looking at opioids and the prescribing of them," he said.

Vilsack emphasized the importance of Medicaid in combating the opioid epidemic.

"There are 91,000 people in Missouri that could access treatment who don't, because they don't have access to Medicaid,"  he said.

Vilsack ended his remarks on a personal note. As a child, he said, his adoptive mother suffered from prescription drug addiction. Vilsack said that experience taught him opioid addiction is not a character flaw, it is a disease.

"She overcame her addiction, she dealt with this disease, and she offered her family an incredible example of faith and never losing faith," he said. 

Vilsack was a likely choice to be Hillary Clinton's vice-presidential pick, but he was not selected. Speaking to the media after his remarks and prior to Clinton's vice presidential announcement, Vilsack declined to comment on his relationship with Clinton, her vice presidential decision or whether he would be attending the Democratic National Convention.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the most recent information.]