The Opioid Epidemic in Appalachia: Addressing Hurdles to Economic Development in the Region

December 12, 2017

Statement of
The Honorable Hank Johnson
Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management hearing on
“The Opioid Epidemic in Appalachia: Addressing Hurdles to Economic Development in the Region”​

December 12, 2017


Good morning. I would like to thank the Chairman for holding this hearing on the opioid epidemic in Appalachia.

Since the formation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 1965, Appalachia has made significant progress in executing its mission of addressing persistent poverty and economic despair. However, the progress made in attracting industry to Appalachia and reducing poverty has been threatened by the current opioid epidemic sweeping the nation. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdoses are now a leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in approximately 52,000 deaths in 2015, or 142 deaths every day. In Appalachia, the problem is even worse. 

In 2009, the mortality rate in the Appalachian Region was 24 percent higher than the non-Appalachian United States. By 2016, the mortality rate was 37 percent higher than the rest of the nation.  The opioid epidemic also happens to strike in the most devastating way to men and women between the prime working ages of 25 to 44.

Although the mortality rate is lower in the Georgia counties in my congressional district covered by the ARC, I think there can be important lessons learned for the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission, another economic development commission that I introduced legislation reauthorizing earlier this year.

This is a full-blown crisis that demands the attention of Congress. The high rates of substance abuse and mortality in Appalachia compared to the rest of the United States is a serious impediment to sustained economic growth. Employers are seeking a healthy workforce when making decisions about where they will locate their businesses. High rates of substance abuse and mortality make it difficult for employers to find and hire qualified candidates.

The ARC, in its mission to promote economic development in the region, has understood the grave threat of opioid addiction to the economic viability of the region. In 2017, the ARC commissioned two reports that clearly outline that men and women of prime working ages are beset with high rates of substance abuse and mortality. 

I support ARC’s conclusion that increased access to treatment services, prevention, and overdose medications to address the opioid epidemic is necessary. I am pleased that the approach to the opioid epidemic in all of ARC’s commissioned reports discuss this problem in the context of it being a public health issue as much as it is a law enforcement issue. 

We must not repeat the mistakes of the past where drug abuse was over criminalized as it was the during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.  The government’s response to drugs in the 1980s did not have the effect of easing the problem but instead only intensified the severity of the problem.  Hopefully, we have learned some things from our past.  Today the comprehensive reports and testimony before this committee make clear that the genesis and driving force for this epidemic starts with the proliferation of prescription drugs.   I am glad we will have a former DEA official talk about how changes in the law and policy at DEA contributed to the explosion in prescription pills in Appalachia.

There is no silver bullet to solve the opioid epidemic but I look forward to hearing from today’s witnesses on how a comprehensive multi-faceted approach could address the crisis. 

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