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Obama administration announces grants to fight opioid epidemic, urging more funds for treatment

The Obama administration announced $53 million in grants Tuesday to help states fight the opioid epidemic, while warning that the amount is a fraction of the funding needed from Congress to address the crisis.

In comments timed to International Overdose Awareness Day on Wednesday, administration officials urged lawmakers to approve $1.1 billion requested by President Obama to expand treatment options for people addicted to opioid painkillers and heroin.

Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy, said that although the new state grants, including money to outfit first responders with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, were worthy, “simply reviving people isn’t enough to turn the tide of this epidemic.”

Congress “must act to provide sufficient resources to make life-saving treatment available to everyone who seeks it,” Botticelli said.

The geographical sweep and scope of the opioid problem have made it a rare unifying issue for liberal and conservative politicians. The crisis began with misuse of OxyContin in the late 1990s in Maine and Appalachia, but has grown to include abuse of other painkillers and heroin in nearly every region of the country. Nearly 30,000 people died in 2014 from overdoses involving opioids. There was broad bipartisan support for legislative action, and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 passed both houses of Congress easily this spring. The wide-ranging measure included more police access to naloxone, improved treatment for prisoners, pregnant women and others, and the authorization of task forces to fight drug trafficking and develop best practices for the prescribing of painkillers.

While the parties are in sync over the bill’s aims, they have remained at odds over funding. Republican lawmakers rejected a Democratic proposal for $920 million in new spending, saying money could be found elsewhere.

When Obama signed the bill in July, he said he was “deeply disappointed that Republicans failed to provide any real resources for those seeking addiction treatment to get the care that they need.”

If the money is approved, states will get dedicated funding for rehab programs. California, for example, could receive up to $78 million over a two-year period. 

In West Virginia, a state that has grappled with pervasive opioid abuse for two decades, there are 28 beds in state detox programs and a long waiting list, according to Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington. He said that in the last two weeks, 26 people had overdosed in his city. Thanks to naloxone, he said, only two died, but the wait for treatment for the others was six months. 

He said his city needed federal dollars: “This is not a Democrat issue. This is not a Republican issue. This is an issue of saving lives.”

The grants announced Tuesday include $11.5 million from the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention for deterrence efforts in California and 13 other states, such as upgrading prescription monitoring programs that guard against shopping around for doctors. Eleven states with the highest admission rates for opioid treatment, including Arizona, New Hampshire and Illinois, will share $11 million to expand programs that use substitution drugs, such as buprenorphine, to treat addiction.

Times staff writer Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesharriet

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