FDA head talks opioid addiction in hard-hit West Virginia

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — After opposing his confirmation earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin gave positive marks to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf at a West Virginia round-table on opioid abuse Tuesday.

The Democratic senator also questioned Califf about who can make the call to stop the flood of addictive prescription drugs across the country. Califf said the problem needs to be addressed at the highest levels of both FDA and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

"The buck's been passed for many, many years, and I'm not blaming anybody today; I'm blaming past culture," Manchin told reporters. "We're going to change this culture."

Tuesday's discussion included Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other government, medical and substance abuse leaders.

In February, Manchin was one of four senators who opposed Califf's confirmation, pointing to the doctor's ties to the pharmaceutical industry and the scourge of prescription drug abuse in the state. According to 2014 federal health statistics, West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths, with 35.5 per 100,000 people.

Califf was a prominent cardiologist and medical researcher at Duke University for more than 30 years. His previous financial disclosures show pharmaceutical companies funded some of his research and paid him for consulting work.

"I am still very hopeful, and yes, he has made positive changes, and I'm very anxious to see many more positive changes," Manchin said.

Califf said the FDA is "looking hard" at making the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone available over the counter. This year, the treatment became available without a prescription to anyone in West Virginia. Several states have similar laws.

Califf's visit continues a heightened presence for the Obama administration in Appalachia on the opioid abuse epidemic.

Obama visited Charleston to hear the community describe the scourge of drug abuse in October. He tapped Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to head an interagency team on the topic, and Vilsack headed a town hall last month in Abingdon, Virginia with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

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