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50-State Convening to Prevent Opioid Overdose and Addiction

Sylvia Mathews Burwell
September 17, 2015
Arlington, VA

This epidemic is multi-faceted, and we need to respond with the best solutions that medicine and behavioral therapy can provide together.

As Prepared for Delivery


Thank you, Richard [Frank].

I want to welcome you all here today.

This meeting has been in the works for a while now and it’s the result of a lot of hard work and collaboration with the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, the National Governors’ Association, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

So thank you all for joining us.

This issue is one that is very close to my heart. As many of you know, my home state of West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the U.S., more than double the national rate.

I’ve seen the epidemic firsthand… I watched a friend of mine, a talented, vibrant young woman, struggle with addiction and ultimately lose.

And as Secretary, I’ve seen the way it impacts our communities without regard to income or area. 

Blair’s Story

I visited Denver, Colorado, this summer, and I met a young woman named Blair Hubbard.

I know you all are familiar with so many stories like Blair’s: She was a good kid who got hooked on painkillers after her wisdom teeth were removed and eventually realized heroin was cheaper and easier to get.

Each of you knows a Blair. Each of you knows the statistics she represents and the heartbreak of her family and her community.

But I do want to tell you the story of Blair’s triumph over that addiction. In 2011, Blair almost died—her drug use led to a blood infection, which led to emergency open heart surgery.

That’s when her doctors connected her to the methadone clinic at the Denver Health Medical Center and she was able to get the medication-assisted treatment and the supportive counseling she needed.

The combination of behavioral and medical therapy that M.A.T. offers helped her start on the path to sobriety.

Today, Blair volunteers as a peer recovery support team member at the clinic that saved her life and works part time on an HIV/Hepatitis C survey for the CDC.

And on top of all of that, she’s working on getting her masters so she can be a professional counselor and help others recover from addiction.

The Opioid Epidemic

Like Blair was, many of our communities are struggling. This epidemic has ravaged our cities and rural towns.

It’s meant our police are asked to take on health care crises they aren’t equipped to deal with.

It’s meant more crime, more unemployment, and more dangerous pregnancies and orphaned children.

Too many Americans are a part of the family of survivors who have been left to pick up the pieces.

But today, we’re not here to focus on tragedy. Like Blair, we’re here on a journey to recovery. Change has to happen, and it happens with us. This is our time to turn it around.

In April, I sent letters to each of your governors asking for your observations and ideas and you responded in bipartisan, innovative ways.

One theme stood out: Each state has a role to play, but if we want to find lasting solutions, we have to continue to work together. 

If we hope to save lives and help our neighborhoods and our communities overcome this challenge, we must work together to share the best ideas and focus on the practices that are backed by evidence.

Our Strategy

The causes of this epidemic are complex and require a similar approach.

At HHS, we have combed through our best research and gathered experts from across the government and across sectors. From this, we’ve identified three priority areas where the evidence tells us we can have the most significant impact.

First, we need to close the gateway to prescription opioid use disorder. We’re committed to empowering providers and other health care professionals with the information and tools they need to make safer prescribing decisions.

Second, we need to lift people out of opioid use disorder through Medication-Assisted Treatment —the type of treatment that saved Blair’s life.

This epidemic is multi-faceted, and we need to respond with the best solutions that medicine and behavioral therapy can provide together.

So we need to increase the use of buprenorphine, which can help us treat opioid use disorder when combined with psycho-social support.

We have heard from many stakeholders and leaders that the current capacity does not meet demand.

So today I’m proud to announce that our Department will revise the regulations related to buprenorphine to safely and effectively increase access.

Finally, there are millions of Americans who face the immediate and life-threatening risk of an overdose. We need to make sure that naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdose, is readily and quickly available.

To get us closer to this goal, I’m happy to announce that our Office of Rural Health Policy is awarding approximately $1.8 million in grants to support community partnerships in 13 states.

With this funding, these communities will be able to purchase naloxone; train health care professionals and local emergency responders in the use of naloxone; and facilitate the referral of people with opioid use disorder to substance abuse centers.

Partners in the private sector are also helping us advance toward this goal. For example, Kaléo, the maker of the only FDA-approved naloxone product for use by laypersons has launched the “Kaléo Cares Product Donation” program.

This program will give away naloxone to hundreds of first responder agencies and partners in the communities with the greatest need.

Our Department is proud to work with them, using our publicly available data sets to get this life-saving product where it is needed most.

Common Ground

We are eager to share our expertise and our support with you, but we also know that the best ideas and the most promising innovations often come from the ground up.

I’ve learned about some of these innovations directly from your states.

For example, Delaware was devastated by 185 drug overdose deaths in 2014. As Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf said, “that’s one son, daughter, mother, father, sister or brother every other day.”

So the state launched an education and prevention campaign called “Help is Here” that offers a “no wrong door” approach for anyone affected by the rise in drug use. Through this site, Delaware residents can find resources for detox services, residential and outpatient treatment, halfway houses and advice on living sober.

In my home state of West Virginia, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse has gathered local stakeholders in more than 80 public meetings in communities across the state.

From these meetings, state leaders have adopted a prescription drug monitoring database, provided community-based behavioral health services to ex-offenders, and have expanded the distribution of naloxone to first responders and the families of people with opioid use disorder.

These are the kind of ideas that we need.

This is why we are asking every state to work together over the next two days to create regional strategic plans, including concrete goals, key stakeholders to engage, anticipated barriers, and ways to overcome those barriers.

This strategy will promote cooperation across states and find regional solutions for addressing the opioid epidemic.

Over the next two days, you will be able to be a part of this effort with three breakout sessions focused on developing regional approaches to safer prescribing practices and easier access to MAT and naloxone.

During the last session of this convening, each region will have the chance to share its strategy and its plan to move forward.

And after you leave here today, you should not hesitate to reach out to your federal partners for assistance.

We will make sure that you have designated points of contact in federal agencies. And we will make sure that you are connected to the most current resources, research and funding opportunities to help you fight the opioid epidemic. We want to do our part.

Promises We Must Keep

We need your help. We need you to pick up best practices and bring them to the partners in your region. We need your open, candid advice. Because we need good ideas to spread faster and farther than this epidemic.

The solution to this problem is not going to be easy, but Blair’s fight wasn’t easy, either. For her and for all of our neighbors up against opioid abuse, we have to fight just as hard. Good intentions are not enough. We must act today.

So here is what I would like all of you to do: Use this time to identify actionable items and capture good ideas. Be clear about what is needed in your states and help us create a strategy to address those specific needs. Educate each other—you all have pieces of this puzzle, let’s see how they fit together.

And promise me—and I won’t make you recite a pledge or do your scout’s honor salute, but promise me just the same—that you will leave this convening with a written commitment for what you are going to achieve in the next year. When a year passes, I want you to check it.

And my promise to you all is that we will continue to push forward progress in preventing, treating and improving emergency responses to this epidemic. We’ll do whatever we can to support you.


Blair’s story is one of triumph, but we know that far too many of these stories end in heartbreak. Addiction is a nightmare that many never escape; a shadow that eclipses the lives it touches. And we know that this shadow is growing. But tragedy is not our destiny.

It will take perseverance to stand up against this threat; it will take courage to ask the hard questions and answer them; and it will take hope to keep believing that we can win this fight. But we will rise to the challenge. Because we know we must.

Change must happen. You are the leaders who can make it so. Let’s do it.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on September 17, 2015