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White House Announces Program to Combat Rise in Heroin Deaths

In response to a rise nationally in fatal heroin overdoses, the White House on Monday announced a plan aimed at emphasizing treatment rather than prosecution of addicts.

The program would initially be funded for $2.5 million by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy through five “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas” and cover 15 states, administration officials said Monday.

The plan would focus on tracing the sources of heroin, where a deadly opiate additive blamed for a rising share of recent overdose deaths is being added. The plan also pairs law enforcement officials with public health workers in an effort to address the causes of the problem.

"It's also something that's very much on the president's radar," Eric Schultz, White House deputy press secretary told NBC News. "This is a pretty severe threat that we face and so this program is an unprecedented partnership with both law enforcement and public health officials to really get at the root of it."

Administration officials told NBC News the office of drug policy has been tracking and working to address the "sharp increase in heroin use in trafficking and abuse over the past few years". Law enforcement suggested the partnership with public health officials as a way of improving communication and identifying "potential abusers early on in the process and really focus on prevention and treatment," Schultz said.

The initiative came in reaction to that sharp increase in heroin use and deaths, particularly in New England and other Northeastern states, which will be covered in the plan.

“The new Heroin Response Strategy demonstrates a strong commitment to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue,” Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy said in a statement on Monday.

Heroin overdose deaths in the United States nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, fueled by lower costs as well as increased abuse of prescription opiate painkillers, U.S. health officials said in July.

Under the White House program, 15 drug intelligence officers and 15 health policy analysts will collect data on overdoses and trends in heroin trafficking for distribution to local law enforcement, the Post reported. It added that the plan would also train first responders about how to use medication that can reverse overdoses.

“This Administration will continue to expand community-based efforts to prevent drug use, pursue ‘smart on crime’ approaches to drug enforcement, increase access to treatment, work to reduce overdose deaths, and support the millions of Americans in recovery’,” Botticelli said in a statement.