Smaller cities and towns carry a unique burden when it comes to drug addiction.
I grew up in Mounds, Ill. It's a small farming community of about 800 people in the southernmost part of the state. It may seem an unlikely place for a drug epidemic, but opioid addiction and substance abuse have plagued families there for decades. Years ago, the first of my close relatives died after a long struggle with prescription opioids.
That's one reason why, as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, I keep the victims of this crisis close to my heart.
Under President Donald Trump, HHS has made the opioid crisis a top priority because it leaves no corner of our country untouched. When the crisis began, we worked mostly in rural areas to address overdoses and opioid-use disorder. The opioid crisis is nationwide and claimed approximately 116 American lives every day in 2016.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides even more grim details. Nearly 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, a 21 percent increase from the previous year and the largest increase on record. More than 42,000 of those deaths involved opioids, more than the total number of all drug overdose deaths in 2012. Further, provisional data indicate that approximately 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017. In 2015, there were more than 1 million opioid-related hospital stays and emergency-room visits in the U.S.
A publication from the University of Minnesota's College of Pharmacy brings the crisis closer to this region. Titled "Combating the Opioid Crisis in Northern Minnesota," it found that the Duluth area in particular has been hit hard. St. Louis County has the highest opioid overdose death rate in the state.
As part of the Trump administration's focused mission to support states and local communities on the front lines of this fight, one of our primary strategies is to learn directly from those on the ground so we may be able to benefit from the experience and understanding of local leaders and communities. Over the last few months I have traveled to Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Texas, California, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to exchange ideas with medical experts, local officials, and, especially, individuals currently receiving treatment for opioid addiction.
My visit to Duluth in July was part of the same journey - and a personal one as well. My mother was born in Esko. I consider your remarkable region a second home.
While I was there, one family told me of tragic loss. Their son was injured on the job, was prescribed opioids for pain, and soon became addicted. After only a few months, he lost his life to opioid overdose.
I also heard inspiring stories of people in recovery and how well they know the severe hurdles to battling addiction. They are now providing crucial help by connecting others to treatment and educating the public about lifesaving overdose-reversing drugs.
I was particularly encouraged visiting Duluth's Lake Superior Health Clinic and learning how grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration at HHS are aiding in the clinic's vital mission of care.
My message that day was clear: HHS stands ready to assist local heroes helping to end this epidemic in their communities. We are backing up that commitment in Minnesota by awarding more than $10.7 million in state-targeted opioid-crisis grants, $6 million in medication-assisted treatment, and more than $24 million in substance-abuse prevention and treatment block grants last year. Additional awards will be announced in the coming months.
As an indication of the priority he places on this effort, President Trump donated a quarter of his salary last year to the planning and design of a large-scale public-awareness campaign to enhance understanding of the dangers of opioid misuse and addiction. He hopes his example will spur Congress to take even more action.
We at HHS recognize that the American people, in local communities like Duluth and all across our great country, will be the ones to end this terrible crisis. It will require nothing less than a united effort from not just government but the business community, our churches, our schools, and all of civil society.
We can win this battle in Minnesota and all across the country.
Eric D. Hargan is deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.