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Opioid Deaths May Be Starting To Plateau, HHS Chief Says

Updated at 4:37 p.m. ET

The American opioid crisis is far from over, but early data indicate the number of deaths are beginning to level off, according to Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, citing "encouraging" results in overdose trends.

In a speech on Tuesday at a Milken Institute health summit, Azar walked through statistics suggesting deaths were plateauing and he highlighted efforts he says may be turning the tide in the drug epidemic.

In 2017, the number of Americans dying from overdoses rose to 72,000 from 64,000 the previous year. However, according to new provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control, opioid overdose deaths went from 42,000 to 49,000 but stopped rising toward the end of 2017, a trend that has continued into the beginning of this year.

It is "finally bending in the right direction," Azar said.

He added that the death toll flattening out is "hardly a victory," especially at such high levels. Current government statisticsshow that opioids kill over 115 Americans each day.

"We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning," he said.

Azar, a former pharmaceutical lobbyist and drug company executive, said the Trump administration's Department of Health and Human Services has prevented addiction by promoting evidence-based pain management and supporting treatment and recovery services.

"Simply put, America has prescribed, and still prescribes, a stunning amount of potentially addictive pain medications," he said.

The push to fight the epidemic of opioid overdoses has been one of the few large-scale bipartisian efforts in recent years in an otherwise politically polarized nation.

President Barack Obama expanded treatment options for opioid users and lobbied Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars to combat the epidemic.

On Wednesday, President Trump is expected tosign a bill recently passed by Congress that expands Medicaid opioid treatment programs and workforce training initiatives, and supports FDA research to find new options for non-opioid pain relief.

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Corrected: October 24, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said that in 2017 the number of Americans dying from opioid overdoses rose to 72,000 from 64,000 the previous year. That was incorrect. That was how many Americans died from all overdoses. Opioid overdose deaths went up from 42,000 to 49,000 in 2017.