Obama visits Charleston

POTUS unveils plan for drug reform in the nation’s opiate epicenter

Gallery of pictures from event attached below


In a small community center on the east end of Charleston, West Virginia, President Barack Obama addressed a crowd of about 200 doctors, politicians, civic leaders and community members Wednesday afternoon.

Despite the excitement surrounding the President’s visit, the matter of business was a serious one: addressing the nation’s fast growing opiate epidemic, which West Virginia is at the epicenter.

“More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do from car accidents,” Obama said. “Drug addiction is happening everywhere, in great families, in great homes.”

The President delivered a simple message for a complicated problem, one Obama said he has been studying since he took office.

These numbers are big, but behind those numbers is an incredible pain for those families and West Virginia understands this better than anybody.”

— President Barack Obama

Obama advocated for everyone to play their part to end the stigma of drug addiction, to provide pathways to recovery for opiate addicts and to support the loved ones of those struggling with this disease.

“When people loosely throw around word like ‘junkie,’ no one wants to be labeled that way,” Obama said. “Part of our goal is to replace those words with words like ‘father,’ or ‘daughter,’ or ‘son’ or ‘friend.’”

Nationally, 40 people die every day from prescription drug overdose. In 2013, overdoses from prescription pain meds killed more than 16,000 Americans.

This problem has increased drastically over the past decade, as these kinds of drugs have become more powerful and easier to get.

According to the White House, since 1999, sales of pain medications have increased by 300 percent. In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written, which is “more than enough to give every adult in the United States their own bottle of pain medication,” Obama said.

“I don’t have to tell you this is a terrible toll,” Obama said. “These numbers are big, but behind those numbers is an incredible pain for those families and West Virginia understands this better than anybody.”

West Virginia has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state, with 600 dying every year and, according to Dr. Joe Shapiro, Dean of Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, one-in-six people in the tri-state are addicted to some sort of substance.

One substance that has been on a dramatic rise is heroin, which opioids are designed to replicate. Obama said the majority of those overdoses involve these legal prescription drugs, which act as gateways to heroin after doctors stop prescribing these legal medications.

“One of the problems we have is too many families suffer in silence,” Obama said. “Let’s face it, there is still fear and shame and stigma that surrounds substance abuse that prevents people from seeking the help they deserve. With no other disease do we expect people to wait until they’re a danger to themselves and other to self-diagnose and seek treatment.”

Obama said drug addiction does not just affect those who deal with it everyday, but everyone. For this reason, Obama said we need to work together to solve this epidemic.

“That’s the thing about drug abuse, it doesn’t discriminate,” Obama said. “It can happen to anyone, from celebrities to college students to soccer moms to inner city kids.”

One such situation is that of Jordan Coughlen, who described himself in the president’s introduction as having a good upbringing.

“Jordan is living proof that when it comes to substance abuse, treatment and recovery are possible if we work together and care about each other,” Obama said.

Coughlen said he has been free from abusing opiates for 22 months. Coughlen now works as a peer recovery specialist at Youth Services Systems in Wheeling, West Virginia.

“Opiates were my lover, my teacher and my best friend,” Coughlen said. “Without recovery I would not have the relationship I have with my family. Without recovery, I would not be a respected employee. Without recovery, I would not be standing before you today as the proud, hardworking, resilient, hopeful man I am.”

Obama said he wants to make full recovery possible for more and more Americans. Obama described a number of actions for his Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan, including training federal health care providers who provide opioids, increasing the use and availability of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses and providing counseling efforts for addicts in addition to detox.

“It can’t just be replacing on drug with another,” Obama said. “We need to identify any barriers that exist that keep us from creating treatment centers. This is an illness and we have to treat it as such. We’ve got to change our mindset.”

In order to facilitate dialogue about how to make these changes, the President participated in a round-table discussion with Brent Webster, Charleston Chief of Police, Dr. Michael Brumage, Sylvia Burwell, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and mother of a recovering addict, Carrie Dickson.

Dickson read a speech written from the point of view of those who have dealt with a drug addicted loved one. Dickson said it was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what families have to endure when caring for someone with an addiction.

“We rest better at night when our loved ones are incarcerated,” Dickson said. “Because the place you never dreamed they’d even see, a jail or a prison, is safer than them being on the street, or pushing a needle into the arms.”

Dickson’s emotional address resonated strongly with the audience, especially with parents David and Kate Grubbs, who shared their story about witnessing their daughter’s overdose.

“As soon as this overdose happened, we called hotlines to try to find her treatment and they said, ‘There’s a three-month wait,’ or ‘We don’t take Medicaid cards,’” David Grubbs said. “The bottom line is, we need resources and we need to put those resources into effect.”

Obama said one of his goals when he entered office was to restore a sense of balance when it came to equal treatment for drug addiction.

“We need to build, fund and support more treatment centers locally,” Obama said. “On the other hand, if there is a treatment center and you don’t have insurance, you might have to mortgage your house. I am very proud of the fact that the Affordable Care Act requires private insurance that is sold on the marketplace to provide coverage for substance abuse programs.”

Ultimately, President Obama’s visit to Charleston unveiled a plan not just for those who are currently struggling with addiction, but for every citizen as well.

“This is something that is not a top down solution,” Obama said. “The point is, we’ve all got a role to play.”

Rob Engle can be contacted at [email protected]