President Obama has named Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to lead a new effort to address the problem of heroin and prescription drug abuse in rural America.
A White House official told CNN Vilsack will use information about rural problems to develop policy solutions to combat the opioid epidemic, as well as “increasing suicide rates, declining physical and mental health, and heightened financial stress.”
Heroin use has increased in rural America in recent years. Obama noted in his State of the Union address last week that combating heroin use could be a key area of bipartisan cooperation.
Vilsack chairs the White House Rural Council, which encompasses 15 departments and multiple agencies, including Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs and the Office of National Drug Policy, The Washington Post reports.
The newspaper notes that Vilsack’s adoptive mother struggled with addictions to alcohol and prescription medication. He said he is optimistic that there could be bipartisan support because the problem affects so many families.
Matt Chase, Executive Director of the National Association of Counties, said the new initiative is “very timely and much-needed federal attention.” He said the rise in drug and alcohol abuse in rural areas is symptomatic of an economy where there is more automation and less need for workers. “To me, it really boils down to the lack of economic opportunity in so many of these areas,” he said.