By Tim Reid
(Reuters) - Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg aims to prevent one million deaths by 2028 from addiction and mental illness under a plan he released on Friday aimed at tackling the country's opioid and substance abuse crisis.
Buttigieg wants to require health insurance companies to provide mental health and addiction treatment on an equal footing with other physical conditions, to reduce deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide.
"I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves," Buttigieg said in a Twitter post on Friday.
Known as "deaths of despair," those kinds of fatalities have led to the first decline in life expectancy for middle-aged whites in the United States for generations, according to a recent Princeton University study, and often occurs in communities that have suffered economic downturns.
"For years, politicians in Washington have claimed to prioritize mental health care while slashing funding for treatment and ignoring America's growing addiction and mental health crisis. That neglect must end," Buttigieg said in a statement before the plan's release.
Buttigieg is one of 22 Democratic candidates vying to become the party's nominee to take on Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election. Other Democratic White House hopefuls, including U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, have also released plans aimed at fighting the opioid abuse crisis.
Trump campaigned in 2016 on reducing opioid-related deaths. He appointed a "drug czar" after taking office to tackle the opioid addiction crisis. Congress has also passed legislation to combat opioid-related deaths. Deaths due to opioids began to decline last year.
There were more than 68,000 U.S. deaths from drug overdoses in 2018, compared with over 72,000 in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the first annual drop in drug overdose deaths since 1999.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, wants to see a new approach in how the U.S. health system treats mental illness and addiction, by dramatically increasing access to mental health and substance abuse treatment and ending the stigma of people ashamed or reluctant to seek help.
If elected president in 2020, Buttigieg said he will commit to decreasing deaths of despair by one million by 2028, and ensure that 75% of people who need mental health and addiction services receive that care by the end of his first four-year term.
He said he will achieve those goals through a number of initiatives, including a 10-year, $100 billion grant program that will fund local communities to expand and develop their own on-the-ground expertise to improve mental health and addiction treatments.
The plan would also provide funds to expand take-home naloxone programs to all 50 states by 2024. Naloxone is a drug that can be administered to a person suffering an opioid overdose and can rapidly reverse the overdose and prevent death.
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bernadette Baum)