Vilsack tapped to lead White House effort to reduce rural drug use

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2016 - President Barack Obama has asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to lead a coordinated, interagency effort to curb heroin and opioid abuse in rural America.

The White House said Vilsack will tackle these issues with the help of the White House Rural Council. Obama established the WHRC in 2011 to streamline and improve rural programs as well as to coordinate private sector partnerships to spur job creation and economic development in rural areas.

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As the Obama administration's only original cabinet member still in his original office, Vilsack will also be charged with developing policies to help rural areas fight increasing suicide rates, poverty and declining physical and mental health.

Obama, who spoke about heroin abuse in Tuesday's State of the Union, announced more than 40 public-private partnerships aimed at addressing prescription drug and opiate abuse in October.

The president also issued a memorandum in October, requiring federal departments and agencies provide training to federal healthcare professionals on the prescribing of controlled substances, and to improve access to treatment for prescription drug and heroin abuse. 

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In their October announcement, the White House cited statistics showing that more Americans die each year from drug overdoses - mostly prescription pills - than in motor vehicle crashes.

Heroin use, while a public health concern nationwide, has increased particularly in rural areas, in part because prices have dropped. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates heroin use in 2014 among people aged 12 or older was higher than the estimates for most years between 2002 and 2013.

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