Facing an epidemic of overdoses, Obama rejects governors' proposal to limit painkiller prescriptions

President Obama listens to a question during a meeting with governors at the White House, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
President Obama listens to a question during a meeting with governors at the White House, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

In this series, Yahoo News takes a closer look at the current opioid epidemic, its roots and demographics, the increasing acceptance of medication-assisted treatment as a supplement to 12-step programs and the remaining obstacles to combating widespread addiction. This series also highlights ways in which the current crisis is unexpectedly forcing a larger shift toward treating addiction more like other chronic illnesses.

Members of the National Governors Association came to Washington for their annual winter meeting with President Obama Monday, armed with a plan to restrict access to prescription painkillers and end the country’s deadly opioid epidemic.

But the proposal, which drew bipartisan support from within the NGA over the weekend, received a less-than-enthusiastic response when presented to the president.

“If we go to doctors right now and say ‘Don’t overprescribe’ without providing some mechanisms for people in these communities to deal with the pain that they have or the issues that they have, then we’re not going to solve the problem, because the pain is real, the mental illness is real,” Obama said during his meeting with the governors Monday. “In some cases, addiction is already there.”

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47,055 people died from a drug overdose in the U.S. in 2014 — more than any other year on record. Some 61 percent of those fatal overdoses involved opioids, mostly prescription painkillers like OxyContin or Percocet, and heroin.

The CDC emphasizes the link between the significant increase in fatal opioid overdoses (up 200 percent since 2000) to the rise in opioid pill prescriptions in various parts of the country over the past several years. According to the CDC, “Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.”

Some governors, like New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, have reportedly encountered resistance from doctors and pharmaceutical companies when attempting to impose limits on opioid prescriptions in their own states.

That’s why, ahead of Monday’s meeting at the White House, the NGA teamed up with physicians on a proposal to craft tougher protocols for safer pain treatment that will likely include restrictions on the number of opioid prescriptions providers can write, as well as new training requirements that, among other things, would help prescribers better recognize signs of addiction.

“As governors, we are working as individual states and with one another to stem and reverse the tide of this horrible epidemic, but we know that the fight is far from over, which is why our priorities push for additional support from the federal government,” said Hassan, vice chair of the NGA’s Health and Human Services Committee, in a statement issued over the weekend. “Combating the heroin and opioid crisis is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and we must also partner with the private sector, from manufacturers to pharmacies and health care providers, to find solutions and change the way we treat pain in America.”

The NGA’s call to action is the latest — and perhaps most aggressive — political response to the deadly epidemic that’s prompted a number of initiatives from local governments, from presidential candidates and from the White House.

Read more from this series: 

This is your brain on opioids 

How buprenorphine, or ‘bupe,’ changed opioid addiction treatment

Abstinence vs. medication-assisted treatment: Traditional 12-step programs embrace a new model 

It’s easier to get a prescription for drugs that cause opioid addiction than it is for those proven to treat it

The menace in the medicine cabinet: The opioid epidemic’s pharmaceutical roots

The rise of Narcan, the life-saving opioid antidote that can stop an overdose in its tracks 

Why the new face of opioid addiction calls for a new approach to treatment