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Another View -- Hillary Clinton: How we can win the fight against substance abuse

September 01. 2015 8:13PM

ON MY first trip to New Hampshire this spring, a retired doctor spoke up. I had just announced I was running for President, and I had traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire to hear from voters about their concerns, their hopes and their vision for the future. He said his biggest worry was the rising tide of heroin addiction in the state, following a wave of prescription drug abuse.

To be candid, I didn’t expect what came next. In state after state, this issue came up again and again — from so many people, from all walks of life, in small towns and big cities.

In Iowa, from Davenport to Council Bluffs, people talked about meth and prescription drugs. In South Carolina, a lawyer spoke movingly about the holes in the community left by generations of African American men imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, rather than getting the treatment they needed.

These stories shine light on some harrowing statistics. Twenty-three million Americans suffer from addiction, but only 1 in 10 get treatment. Fifty-two million Americans over 12 have misused prescription drugs at some point, including one in four teenagers. In 2013, more Americans died from overdoses than car crashes.

This is not new. We’re not just now “discovering” this problem. But we should be saying enough is enough. It’s time we recognize as a nation that for too long, we have had a quiet epidemic on our hands. Plain and simple, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing — and we must treat it as such.

It’s time we recognize that there are gaps in our health care system that allow too many to go without care — and invest in treatment. It’s time we recognize that our state and federal prisons, where 65 percent of inmates meet medical criteria for substance use disorders, are no substitute for proper treatment — and reform our criminal justice system.

Today I’m releasing a strategy to confront the drug and alcohol addiction crisis. My plan sets five goals: empower communities to prevent drug use among teenagers; ensure every person suffering from addiction can obtain comprehensive treatment; ensure that all first responders carry naloxone, which can stop overdoses from becoming fatal; require health care providers to receive training in recognizing substance use disorders and to consult a prescription drug monitoring program before prescribing controlled substances; and prioritize treatment over prison for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders, so we can end the era of mass incarceration.

Achieving these goals won’t be easy. It will take commitment from all corners — law enforcement, doctors, insurance companies and government at every level. That’s why my plan starts by partnering with states and communities across America to meet these goals and substantially expand access to treatment. We’ll ask states to design ambitious plans using the programs that make most sense for their communities’ needs. In return for strong proposals to address the substance abuse crisis, the federal government will draw on a new $7.5 billion fund to help states meet their goals.

My plan would also increase access to treatment by boosting funding for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant by 25 percent, so communities have more resources to work with immediately. I will ensure that existing federal insurance parity laws are enforced. I will direct the government to reevaluate Medicare and Medicaid payment practices, to remove obstacles to reimbursement and help integrate care for addiction into standard practice. And for those who commit low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, I will reorient our federal criminal justice resources away from more incarceration and toward treatment and rehabilitation. Many states are already charting this course — I will challenge the rest to do the same.

Every town and city I’ve visited so far in this campaign has stories of families upended by drug addiction. But I’ve also heard about second chances. The young mother who overcame her addiction to alcohol and heroin so her son would never see her with a drink or a drug. The man who served 11 years in prison who is now serving others through a prison ministry.

They all say the same thing: No matter how much time has passed, they’re all still in recovery. It’s a process — one that began when a family member, a friend, a doctor, or a police officer extended a hand to help. As one New Hampshire woman said, “We’re not bad people trying to get good, we’re sick people that deserve to get well.”

There are 23 million Americans suffering from addiction. But no one is untouched. We all have family and friends who are affected. We can’t afford to stay on the sidelines any longer — because when families are strong, America is strong. Through improved treatment, prevention, and training, we can end this quiet epidemic once and for all.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is running for the Democratic nomination for President.

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