Every day, 115 people die from an opioid overdose. It now surpasses motor vehicle accidents as the number one accidental cause of death in the nation. It is an epidemic that has impacted people of all ages and backgrounds, in communities in our states and across the nation.
Take, for example, the 16-year-old high school cheerleader from Springfield, Missouri, who was prescribed pain medication for injuries stemming from a car accident. Four years later, despite repeated efforts to fight her addiction, she died from a heroin overdose. Or the West Virginia miner who sustains an injury, is prescribed an opioid to manage the pain, and eventually finds himself struggling with addiction. Whether it’s a successful lawyer, devoted parent or decorated veteran, opioid addiction is a disease that does not discriminate.
Our country has a health crisis. It will require a sustained commitment, continued partnership between Congress, the administration, states, and local communities, and a multi-faceted response to tackle this epidemic. As members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services, we have led efforts to increase funding to respond to the opioid epidemic by 1,300%, or $760 million, in just the past two years. This funding has provided a flexible grant to states to address state-specific needs, tripled resources for Medication Assisted Treatment, supported the development of prescribing guidelines, and started a campaign to help Americans understand how deadly these drugs can be.
We’ve taken some important steps to respond to the crisis, but there is still much more that needs to be done. As we continue our efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, our focus should be on these three critical steps:
First, we need to understand the best options for treating opioid use and ensure all Americans have access to these services. A key step forward must be the recognition by the health care community that a behavioral health issue should be treated like any other physical health issue. If we are going to effectively address opioid addiction, we need to ensure those suffering can access effective treatment — and that should include mental health services.
This is particularly important in states with large rural populations like Missouri and West Virginia. As senators from these states, we know firsthand the challenges that rural areas face, including the lack of telemedicine, resources, and trained personnel. We also know that drug overdose deaths in rural areas have surpassed those in cities. There is a unique aspect to addressing community needs in rural and remote regions, and it is important to provide flexibility to these communities to address their specific needs.
Second, we need to stem the number of individuals who become addicted in the first place. This involves improving surveillance capabilities to better understand where the problems are and where they might go next. It includes educating physicians about the possible risks of prescribing opioids while also ensuring that we do not penalize physicians who act responsibly. Perhaps most importantly, we need to make certain the public understands the risks of taking opioids by increasing our public awareness education efforts.
Finally, simply reducing opioid prescriptions does not address the core problem — effective pain management. We need to focus on developing new pain treatments as adequate alternatives to opioids. If patients with acute or chronic pain do not have reasonable access to non-addictive pain medications or alternative treatments, it will be difficult to solve this crisis..
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. We need to continue to put a priority on resources for these critical steps if we’re going to get the opioid epidemic under control.