Some call Dr. Leslie Hayes a saint for treating the opioid addictions of pregnant women.

But the Española physician told an audience at the White House on Friday that the job saved her, too. When she began prescribing buprenorphine, commonly known by the brand name Suboxone, it gave her a tool to help a stream of patients at her clinic suffering from substance use disorders.

“Finally, I had something I could do,” said Hayes, who grew up in Northern New Mexico, a region that long has been wrought by one of the country’s highest rates of fatal drug overdoses — from both heroin and prescription painkillers.

The doctor’s advocacy for addiction treatment won her recognition as a White House Champion for Change.

Hayes was among 10 people from across the United States recognized Friday for leadership in preventing prescription drug abuse and heroin use, increasing access to treatment and supporting recovery.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, described the group as addressing a problem “that for too long our country has tried to ignore.”

“Without you, we know many people wouldn’t be with us today,” she told the group.

A primary care physician at El Centro Family Health in Española, Hayes began prescribing buprenorphine while working with The University of New Mexico’s Project ECHO on a statewide program to expand access to medication for opioid addiction. Buprenorphine, or Suboxone, is easier to dispense than methadone, another opioid medication that helps prevent symptoms of withdrawal in those who have stopped using more potent opioids.

And because doctors can prescribe buprenorphine, patients can take it at home, rather than at a clinic, providing a practical treatment option for those living in rural areas where a daily trip to a clinic would be impossible.

Rio Arriba County, where Hayes practices, consistently ranks as having one of the highest rates of drug overdoses in the country. In many families there, drug addiction is multigenerational.

As a family practice physician, Hayes has worked intensively with pregnant women and new mothers. Stigma surrounds pregnant women who use heroin, she said. But “these are women that so desperately want to get drug-free.”

With treatment, Hayes said, “these women were having healthy babies. They were staying drug-free after they delivered.”

Selected from among more than 900 nominees, the White House Champions for Change included a police chief from Massachusetts who has worked to end the stigma of addiction by implementing new policies in his law enforcement agency to help those with substance use disorders. Another Champion for Change, an Indiana woman, founded a support network for families affected by opioid addiction.

Though they represent very different communities, said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, those recognized Friday were all motivated by the costs of inaction and inertia.

“You are the champions in our communities who can keep our collective progress going,” Burwell told the group.

The recognition comes amid a push by the White House for $1.1 billion in new funding to expand the use of naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdose, and medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction — which combines drugs like Suboxone with behavioral health therapy.

Friday’s event also coincided with an announcement by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing that beginning in the fall of 2016, 191 schools of nursing will require advance practice students to take some form of prescriber education by the time they graduate. And the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy announced that 54 colleges and schools of pharmacy will educate students about overdose interventions, including how to to counsel patients on the use of naloxone.

In a panel with four other Champions for Change, Hayes called for increasing access to treatment by allowing physician assistants and nurse practitioners to prescribe buprenorphine. Only doctors are currently allowed to prescribe the medication.

“There are nurse practitioners prescribing huge amounts of OxyContin,” Hayes noted, referring to a powerful and addictive opioid painkiller. “And they can’t prescribe buprenorphine.”

Hayes also made a case for more doctors to complete training in prescribing buprenorphine.

While patients receiving the medication are often considered tough cases, Hayes said after the event, they are usually among the most rewarding group of patients she serves.

And the doctor dismissed suggestions that physicians must have experience with addiction to treat addiction.

Instead, Hayes suggested primary care physicians should screen patients more effectively for substance abuse and addiction and view treatment as part of their practice.

“Because we’re not screening well for addiction, we tend to only see people with really severe addictions,” she said during the panel.

But primary care physicians can reach patients with less severe addictions before those disorders escalate, Hayes said.

“Those are the people we need,” she added. “They’re already in your waiting room. You’re just not identifying them.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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