President Obama is appointing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to lead a new interagency effort focused on addressing the rural struggle with heroin and opioid abuse as well as other pressing problems, reports the Washington Post. The decision to centralize federal decision-making on drug abuse as well as other major problems in rural areas — rising suicide rates, declining physical and mental health, and increased financial stress — comes as addiction to heroin and other opiates has become a crisis in many areas. Since 2011, Vilsack has chaired the White House Rural Council.
Heroin and prescription opioid drug overdoses kill about 30,000 people a year — heroin-related death rates increased 28 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone — and state, local and federal law enforcement officials have begun to rethink how best to treat addicts who often have trouble getting treatment. As opioid addiction has emerged as a pressing political issue — with presidential candidates from both parties addressing the concerns of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire — both GOP and Democratic lawmakers have shown a willingness to expand federal support for tackling it. The new budget agreement provides the administration with more than $400 million to address the epidemic, an increase of more than $100 million from the previous year. Vilsack will unveil the new initiative in a town hall discussion today at Ohio State University.