The federal government is giving states $500 million to combat the nation's opioid abuse epidemic.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price made the announcement Wednesday at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in downtown Atlanta, where thousands gathered. The funds will come from the 21st Century Cures Act, he said, which passed Congress last year and was signed by President Barack Obama.
"Americans of every creed and color and class are caught up in this crisis," he said. "No corner of our country is immune or has escaped."
Price, who left his Georgia Congressional seat earlier this year, said fighting the opioid epidemic will be one of his top clinical focuses in office. In 2015, opioids were the cause of death for more than 33,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Price said $485 million dollars in grants will be available to states for evidence-based prevention and treatment programs, and another $500 million in grants will be available next year.
"With these grants, we want to aggressively promote evidence-based policies and best practices, but we also recognize that states know best what their communities need, and that they've already been at the forefront supporting treatment and recovery in so many ways," Price said.
He called the opioid addiction epidemic an emergency and compared the number of deaths due to opioid overdoses to the number of deaths in the Vietnam War.
"In this country right now, we lose 52,000 Americans, we lose a Vietnam every single year to drug overdose, 33.000 of those by opioid overdose," he said. "And I'm hear to tell you that we as a nation need to say that is enough and it must be stopped."
In 2015, more than 1,300 people in Georgia died from an opioid overdose, according to the CDC.
Lawmakers in Georgia passed legislation this year to help fight the epidemic. The measures include making Naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses, available over the counter. Under the legislation, doctors must also check a state drug database before prescribing opioids to prevent over-prescribing.
Opiate painkillers have become a gateway drug, said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC.
"This is a case where we need to change the way we look at a whole class of medications," he said. "Opiates are dangerous drugs."