Recently during a visit to New Hampshire, Gregory and Linda Drugan shared with me the painful story of the death of their son, Greg. Opioid addiction ended his life far too soon at the age of 30. Greg is one of thousands each year who lose their lives to opioid misuse. From 1993 to the 2013, opioid use has increased by 400 percent, exceeding 250 million prescriptions per year. And opioids can start a journey down a horrible path that leads to heroin. In fact, 80 percent of recent heroin users are introduced to heroin through opioids.
Opioid use often starts innocently enough with a prescription for pain from a doctor. Or a family member or a friend shares pain medication. We need to act to address opioid use disorders and overdose, while ensuring that individuals with pain receive safe, effective treatment. Today, however, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 10 million Americans report misusing prescription opioids and about 2 million Americans have a substance use disorder related to prescription opioid pain medicines.
This crisis costs all of us dearly. In fact, according to NIH, the epidemic costs us $72 billion in unnecessary health costs each year. Those costs pale in comparison to the lives lost too soon—28,648 deaths in 2014 alone. The crisis is everywhere and impacts everyone regardless of zip code, gender, race, ethnicity, or income.
Tonight, Congress passed legislation aimed at the crisis. While well intentioned, the legislation provides no new resources to fund these efforts. Democrats worked to amend the legislation to provide critical funding for treatment, but unfortunately Republicans — including some who called for funding in recent weeks — refused to support funding in the end. Without new, targeted resources to give the law some teeth and ensure that every American who seeks treatment can get it, the law falls far short of what is needed to defeat this crisis. The president’s budget proposes new funding in excess of $1 billion to support states in expanding treatment options. These new, targeted resources would also help to support more health professionals in the field — something desperately needed in rural areas.
Laws alone do not save lives from addiction. Prevention saves lives. Treatment saves lives. More trained professionals save lives. Supportive communities save lives. Drug courts save lives. But none of these things will be possible without new, targeted resources.
We are now deep in the throes of an opioid crisis in the United States and there is no more time to lose. That is why I am calling on Republicans to back promises with the commitment of new resources. The time to invest in treatment and start saving more lives is now.
The Obama-Biden Administration has aggressively used the tools at its disposal to stem the tide. The strategy focuses on investing in prevention, treatment, recovery, and promoting criminal justice reform. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently published new guidelines for health care providers on when to use opioids appropriately. The FDA has proposed a new warning about the serious risks, including of addiction for immediate-release opioid pain medications. Over 75,000 doctors have already received prescriber training. Over 60 medical and nearly 200 nursing schools have pledged to incorporate prescriber education, in line with the CDC guidelines, into their basic curriculum.
With limited resources, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently expanded the availability of overdose reversal drugs like Naloxone to first responders and is helping to increase access to more medication assisted treatment (MAT). To that end, HHS is issuing a rule to increase from 100 to 275 the number of patients that qualified physicians who prescribe buprenorphine for opioid use disorders can treat. Providers, policymakers, advocates, and experts have pointed to the current 100 patient limit for buprenorphine prescribing as a barrier to opioid use disorder treatment. The rule aims to increase access to medication-assisted treatment and associated behavioral health supports for tens of thousands of people with opioid use disorders, while preventing diversion.
The faith-based community is also helping to create communities supportive of recovery efforts. Faith leaders can encourage an environment where people struggling with addiction feel free to talk about their struggle and take steps to seek treatment. On the criminal justice side, more communities are realizing that treatment is a better option than incarceration. Drug courts are now being staffed to create that option.
Despite this good work, more effort is needed. Republicans are set to leave town this week for the summer. While they will be celebrating their efforts to pass legislation, there isn’t much to celebrate for the families who desperately need resources in their communities to battle this crisis. When Republicans return in September, they should move quickly to keep their promise to these families by swiftly providing the funding needed to ensure every individual seeking treatment gets the care they need. We simply cannot afford to let another day go by.
Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture secretary, issued this statement June 13 in response to Congressional action on opioid addiction.