Obama Rejects Governors' Pleas to Limit Painkillers

In their meeting with the president Monday, a bipartisan group of governors sought his help in their fight against prescription drug abuse.
by | February 22, 2016
(AP)

Last Updated Tuesday Feb. 23 at 9:09 a.m.

In a room filled with the nation's governors on Monday, Obama announced that he supports them in their mission to quell the nation's opioid epidemic, but he disagreed with some of the ways they want to do it. Specifically, he refused to support a limit on how many painkillers a doctor can prescribe at a single time.

“If we go to doctors right now and say ‘Don’t overprescribe’ without providing some mechanisms for people in these communities to deal with the pain that they have or the issues that they have, then we’re not going to solve the problem, because the pain is real, the mental illness is real,” said Obama.

In 2014, 27,000 people died of an opioid-related overdose. It is estimated now that around 74 Americans a day are fatally overdosing on opioids such as heroin or prescription drugs.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has long been outspoken on this issue, advocated at a National Governors Association (NGA) event on Friday for upending the nation’s standards for prescribing painkillers.

"In 2010, [the medical community] prescribed enough opioids to get every American high," he said. "It’s time for this country to have a serious conversation about our relationship to painkillers."

In addition to new guidelines for prescribing painkillers, the NGA also wants Obama to release some emergency assistance money for states, more resources for treatment and to expand the number of "high intensity drug trafficking areas."

During Saturday’s meeting, the American Medical Association released a joint statement with the NGA calling for an end to the epidemic through drug monitoring programs, more resources for medication-assisted treatment and increased access to naloxone -- the lifesaving drug that can reverse an overdose.

It’s not just governors -- both Democratic and Republican -- who want the administration to take swift action. Earlier this month, members of Congress from the self-titled “New England delegation” sent Obama a signed letter urging him to declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency and to release some of the allocated money in the FY 2017 budget as soon as possible.

“We support and applaud the administration’s attention to this issue through your budget request of over $1.1 billion to combat the issue," the letter said. "Families in our states are dying now and need immediate help."

In the meantime, Congress has taken some action. In January, a decades-long federal funding ban on needle exchange programs was lifted. Republican lawmakers historically were against such programs because they believed they would prevent people from getting clean. But now that many of the states hit worst by the epidemic are run by Republican lawmakers, it has become a bipartisan issue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office said last month that there needs to be more “flexibility so that certain counties in Kentucky may be able to access federal funds for their treatment and education efforts.”