President Barack Obama said Monday that doctors can make a difference in reducing the rate of prescribing of opioid drugs, which is cited as exacerbating the nation's drug abuse epidemic.
He said it can happen by doctors adopting alternative strategies to address pain management in patients.
Speaking with governors from across the country at the White House on Monday, Obama called for a national strategy to combat the current drug abuse epidemic that has been responsible for a 137% increase in overdose deaths since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He declined to endorse a proposal from the nation's governors to limit the number of high-powered painkillers doctors can prescribe at a time. Obama noted that painkillers are sometimes the only realistic treatment option for people in rural communities. He says simply ordering doctors not to overprescribe won't solve their patients' problems, and that limiting prescriptions should be part of a comprehensive approach.
Obama urged increased investment in drug treatment and mental health services in rural counties, where he said resources are currently insufficient or nonexistent.
“What we have to do I think is to make a big push for additional treatment and mental health services in rural communities generally, to make a big push for public health and prevention in communities generally,” Obama said. “Then have a very specific approach to working with the docs, the hospitals and the providers so that they are not overprescribing.”
Obama's comments came during a special question-and-answer event held with the National Governors Association. The organization held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. Governors issued recommendations for federal help to support states' efforts in combating the epidemic.
Among the goals addressed in a document releeased by the NGA, Governors' Priorities to Address the Nation's Opioid Crisis (PDF), were providing states with emergency funding to increase addiction education and prevention; expanding access to treatment services and assistance for law enforcement; and strengthening state prescription drug monitoring programs to track prescribing among providers.
Obama said any plan also needs to include increased investment in expanding public health within rural communities that suffer a dearth of primary-care physicians.
“If we go to the doctors right now and say don't overprescribe without providing some mechanism for people in these communities to deal with the pain or the issue that they have, then we're not going to solve the problem,” Obama said. “The pain is real, the mental illness is real, in some the addiction is already there."
More than 47,000 Americans died in 2014 as a result of a drug overdose, according to the CDC, with 61% of those cases involving some kind of opioid like heroin. The rise in the use of heroin has coincided with spikes in prescribed pain relievers.
The rate of heroin-related overdose deaths has quadrupled over the past decade, killing more than 8,200 people in 2013. Experts say many patients who initially become addicted to prescription opioids switch to heroin because it's cheaper and easier to get.
Obama said the relationship between the two drugs was well-known among heroin dealers, which he claimed have targeted areas throughout the country with high prescription rates to market their drugs.
“What we've seen is that those who are marketing heroin are now tracking which communities are most vulnerable,” Obama said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.