Opiate Epidemic Latest Victim
Rates of opioid addiction in the United States have reached epidemic proportions, with an estimated 4.3 million Americans using prescription opioids for non-medical purposes and more than 400,000 more using heroin, reports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Officials at every level of government, from local treatment providers through the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, are looking for ways to curb the epidemic. Unfortunately, political posturing and pressure from lobbyist groups prevent real progress. In the end, this causes patients to suffer.
The Scope of the Opioid Epidemic in the United States
Approximately 44 people die each day because of prescription painkiller overdose, according to SAMHSA. Unfortunately, many people first begin using painkillers as a way to numb physical or emotional pain. As they continue using the drug, however, they develop a physical dependence to it. Soon, they experience intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms when without the drug.
The high rates of painkiller prescriptions are a big part of the problem, but so too is the lack of treatment options that can truly treat the problems that underlie opioid addiction. Without a way to help patients become free of physical dependence, addicted individuals cannot address the underlying emotional or psychological issues that make keep them stuck in a cycle of addiction. Sadly, political pressures are preventing Congress from taking real action against the opioid epidemic.
Congressional Infighting Over Funding for the Opioid Epidemic
On March 2nd, 2016, the U.S. Senate blocked a bill designed to provide emergency funding for opioid abuse. The proposed legislation would designate $600 million in funding to help local communities fight prescription opiate painkiller and heroin addiction. Democratic senators worked for weeks to try to gain support for emergency funding. Despite several Republican senators breaking party lines to vote for the emergency funding provision, the bill didn’t have enough support to pass.
Republicans cited existing appropriations as their reason for opposing the $600 million emergency funding. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that Congress previously authorized $400 million to go toward opioid-specific programs. However, none of that money has been appropriated yet, meaning that it is waiting to be spent. Congressional gridlock is preventing these funds from being used to enact life-changing measures in local communities.
The $600 of emergency funds were part of a larger bill designed to address opioid abuse in the United States. Called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, the bill has broad bipartisan support. However, lawmakers continue to argue about the details of the bill. As written, CARA contains several key provisions designed to combat opioid addiction, including:
- Creation of a task force to develop prescribing guidelines for physicians writing prescriptions for opioid painkillers
- Grants for state and local governments to expand educational outreach about opioids and addiction
- Create treatment alternatives to incarceration for people arrested on drug-related charges
- Improve veterans’ access to treatment for opioid addiction
- Expand use of naloxone and other opioid antagonists by law enforcement officials
Unfortunately, with every politician acting like an expert in addiction medicine, political figures make decisions that do not best serve patients. People keep dying as ineffective laws go into action and politicians drag their feet about taking steps that could truly save lives.
What can we do about the Opioid Epidemic
When Congress cannot work to expand effective treatment options for people addicted to opioids, everyone loses. Fighting over the decision to appropriate funds to address opioid addiction ignores the very real suffering that people are experiencing. For many people addicted to opioids, there are no good options. Although politicians are supposed to serve their constituents, they often get caught up in party politics and petty disagreements, preventing true progress from being made.
The CARA legislation is a step in the right direction, but it lacks the foresight needed to truly change the face of opioid use in the United States. Expanding the use of naloxone and other opioid antagonists seems like a good idea at face value, but these drugs are only used to reverse overdoses that are already happening. Instead, there needs to be a renewed focus on preventing overdoses from occurring in the first place.
Real change is only possible if we expand access to lifesaving treatments that work before a person is found in an overdose situation. The first step is to help people overcome their physical dependence to opioids. Medical detox protocols cleanse the body of opioids, lessening the intensity and danger of the withdrawal process. Then, once a patient has undergone medical detox, they can work to address underlying psychological and emotional issues that perpetuate addiction.
The opioid epidemic is complicated and multifaceted. However, we will only make progress if we stop fighting and work together to improve access to withdrawal and detox treatments that save lives.