By Jessica Machetta, Missourinet contributor

Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D) says 44% of Americans are directly affected by prescription drug abuse. He joined Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and drug and alcohol abuse prevention leaders Thursday in the St. Louis region to discuss ways to prevent Missourians from misusing opioid medications, like codeine, morphine and oxycodone.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) conduct a round table discussion with local health professionals on efforts to combat the nation’s opioid epidemic, while visiting the offices of the National Council on Alcoholism abd Drug Abuse, in Olivette, Missouri on July 21, 2016. McCaskill is hosting a series of events across Missouri this week to highlight recent federal legislation she successfully shaped to open up resources to local and county Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs). Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Sen. Claire McCaskill Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

“We have to act. We have to focus on prevention. We have to expand treatment. We have to create communities of support for recovery,” says Vilsack. “We have to have criminal justice reform. We also have to have some economic development opportunities in rural areas where this is a particularly acute problem because there is a lack of treatment facilities.”

McCaskill and Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) are working on legislation that would allow St. Louis County to access federal funding to create a prescription drug monitoring system, without the state legislature’s approval.

Missouri is the only state in the U.S. without a program that allows doctors and pharmacists to check how many prescriptions people are having filled – to look for cases of abuse.  McCaskill is fed up with Missouri legislators failing to create such a system.

“They have still, once again for the fifth or sixth time, refused to take this basic step,” says McCaskill.

Vilsack says not having a system in place has a far-reaching effect.

“It’s not just the folks in Missouri that are at risk because of a lack of monitoring program. It’s every state that surrounds Missouri. People from my home state of Iowa can come across the border,” says Vilsack.

One of the main opponents in the legislature is Senator Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph), who is a family physician. He says the program won’t catch those selling pharmaceuticals illegally. He also argues that more people die of alcohol abuse and the effects of smoking of cigarettes than will ever die of opioid overdose.