WASHINGTON -- After hearing story after story from voters on the campaign trail about heroin's toll, Hillary Clinton instructed her policy team to draw up solutions to the burgeoning opiate epidemic.
A Clinton aide told The Huffington Post that the Democratic presidential candidate decided to make mental health and drug addiction a major campaign issue after stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, where she kept hearing from people that the problem needs more attention. It's the type of issue that may not get much attention inside the Beltway and on Sunday talk shows, but opiate addiction has become a devastating problem.
Clinton brought it up on Monday during a stop in Iowa, telling supporters that she wants to "end the stigma against talking about it."
“When I started running, when I started thinking about this campaign, I did not believe I would be standing in your living room talking about the drug abuse problem, the mental health problem, and the suicide problem," she said at the home of one of the first gay couples in the state to wed. “But I’m now convinced I have to talk about it. I have to do everything I can in this campaign to raise it, to end the stigma against talking about it."
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of 28 states found that heroin deaths doubled from 2010 to 2012. U.S. heroin-related overdose deaths increased 39 percent in 2013 from the year before, hitting 8,257. Vermont’s governor devoted his entire 2014 state of the state speech to heroin. In New York City, there are more heroin deaths than homicides.
“This is tearing families apart, but it is below the surface," Clinton said. "We aren’t talking about it because it is something that is hard to deal with."
The heroin or opioid epidemic has exposed the U.S. drug treatment system as inadequate, both in its capacity to treat those addicted and to do so using evidence-based care. Although medically assisted treatments, such as medications methadone and buprenorphine, are viewed by the medical community as essential components of an opioid addict’s recovery, they are inaccessible to the vast majority in need.
Some treatment centers and drug courts continue to insist that addicts refuse these medically assisted treatments. Following a HuffPost investigation into "abstinence-based" opiate treatment, the federal government barred state drug programs from getting federal money if they force addicts to wean off of medications.
Clinton has been holding a series of events during which the topics of substance abuse and mental health have consistently come up. She laid the groundwork for these events at a roundtable in New Hampshire last month, one of her first campaign events as an announced presidential candidate.
When a voter mentioned that substance abuse was a major problem in the community, Clinton called it a "quiet epidemic" and said it's "not just something we can brush under the rug." She commended the Affordable Care Act for placing more emphasis on requiring health insurers to cover treatments for mental health and substance abuse, but said there needs to be more policy reform, from local to national.
"There is a hidden epidemic. We know the drug use problem, whether it’s pills or meth or heroin, is not as visible as 30 years ago when there were all kinds of gangs and violence," Clinton said. "This is a quiet epidemic and it is striking in small towns and rural areas as much as any big city. I think a lot of people are thinking, well, that’s somebody else’s problem, that’s not my problem. And indeed, it is all of our problem and we don’t have enough resources, so that if somebody decides that they wanted to get help, where do you send them to? What kind of opportunities do they have for treatment? And I am convinced that the mental health issues -- because I consider substance abuse part of mental health issues -- is going to be a big part of my campaign, because increasingly it’s a big issue that people raise with me."
Clinton also mentioned substance abuse and mental health in a major speech on criminal justice reform that she made last month in the wake of the riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police. She emphasized the links between problems in the criminal justice system and problems in treating mental health and drug abuse.
“The promise of deinstitutionalizing those in mental health facilities was supposed to be followed by the creation of community-based treatment centers,” she said. “Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions.”