Hot Docs: Prescription Painkiller Abuse on the Rise

Today's selection of timely reports

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Pain Medication Abuse on the Rise: Treatment admission for abuse of prescription painkillers now accounts for 5 percent of all admissions for substance abuse, a substantial jump from 1 percent in 1997. The Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that while alcohol-abuse-related admissions still makes up the bulk of the 1.8 million treatment admissions, that portion has inched down over the years to 40 percent from 50 percent in 1997. The statistics, found in the "Treatment Episode Data Set 2007 Highlights," also show treatment admissions for heroin at 14 percent, methamphetamine at 8 percent, and marijuana at 16 percent. SAMHSA Acting Administrator Eric Broderick says the report "provides valuable insight into the true nature and scope of the challenges confronting the substance abuse treatment community."

GAO Looks at High-Speed Rail: The federal government needs to develop a strategic vision and address financing issues if plans to build a series of high-speed rail lines around the country are to be successful. The Government Accountability Office, in a 108-page-report entitled "High Speed Passenger Rail: Future Development Will Depend on Addressing Financial and Other Challenges and Establishing a Clear Federal Role," looks at the prospects for constructing such a system as envisioned in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 and the $787 billion stimulus package. The GAO finds that there is a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to ridership levels and construction costs and that research has found that forecasts in those areas are "often optimistic." The GAO calls on the secretary of transportation to "develop a written strategic vision for high speed rail . . . clearly identifying potential objectives and goals."

Freedom of Information Act at DHS: Despite making notable progress since 2006, the Department of Homeland Security still has the largest backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests in the government. The Government Accountability Office reports that DHS has cut its backlog by 24 percent, but the number of overdue requests—those not responded to within the generally required 20 working days—was still at more than 75,000 in October 2008. The GAO says that DHS should establish mechanisms for monitoring and oversight, improve staff training, set up a system where people could check the status of their requests online, release records electronically to reduce costs and speed the process, and adopt an electronic redaction system. Some of the suggestions are already in use in various divisions of DHS, and adoption departmentwide could further reduce the backlog, "increase efficiency, improve customer service, and respond to information requests in a more timely fashion."