ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Tuesday called for more government investment in addressing the nation's opioid epidemic, saying only half of the 2 million people who need treatment for addictions have access to it.
Murthy's comments came as he toured a substance abuse center in Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city. New Mexico had one of the highest overdose death rates in 2014, especially among adults 21 to 35, the most recent federal data showed.
Nationally, overdoses from heroin, oxycodone and other opiates killed more than 28,000 Americans in 2014, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Murthy and others are advocating for more funding because of that figure, along with a "treatment gap" that Murthy says deprives roughly a million Americans from getting the counseling, medication and other services they need to beat addictions.
Social stigma and a lack of treatment centers — especially in communities that need it most — share some of the blame for stifling access to care, he said.
"We need to change how our country thinks about addiction," Murthy said. "There are, in fact, many communities that don't want medication assisted treatment facilities in their neighborhoods because they worry that it's going to bring bad people."
It's time to think of addiction as a chronic illness rather than a moral failure, he said.
The Obama administration has proposed spending a billion dollars in the next budget year to curb the opioid crisis. Of that, the White House said Tuesday, about $8 million over two years could be allocated to New Mexico to expand access to treatment.
West Virginia, the only other state to report a higher opioid-overdose death rate than New Mexico in 2014, could receive about $10 million under the budget proposal.
Opiates primarily consist of heroin and prescription pain pills, such as codeine and morphine. The legal and powerful pharmaceutical opiates are the chemical cousin of heroin.
In New Mexico, Ohio and elsewhere, officials and experts have said the resurgence in heroin abuse coincided with doctors and other medical providers writing an unprecedented number of pain prescriptions.
One patient a the University of New Mexico's Addiction Substance Abuse Program, the Albuquerque treatment center that Murthy visited, said she coped with addiction after getting hooked on pills her doctor prescribed her. The last year of her addiction she was taking up to 30 pills per day, she said.
"I didn't feel high or anything like that," she said. "It's almost easier to keep doing it than it is to get help. But I would really stress coming to a place like this any way you can. Just to get your life back."
That's what she did roughly seven years ago, and has been clean since. She still sees a counselor at the treatment center every two weeks, she said.
"I wish I had people telling me there was a place like this that I could come to and get the help," she said.