Today, President Trump ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, which differs slightly from a national emergency, and reactions have been mixed. While we applaud this first step, speaking candidly, this is the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a hemorrhage. The proclamation falls short of what those of us in the treatment sector know is necessary and have long advocated for: The sweeping and speedy allocation of federal funds to aggressively address the issue head on. Now, we stand with our partners at the state and local levels calling for Congress to supply the Public Health Emergency Fund with the resources needed to combat this epidemic.
This announcement is a critical first step. At a time when the opioid epidemic is killing 174 people a day, the administration’s acknowledgement of the crisis raises awareness about this deadly disease at the highest levels.
For so long, we have watched the crisis of opioid pain medications run unchecked, letting the death toll climb higher as first responders and addiction treatment facilities scramble to keep up without the resources they need to really make a difference in this battle. We need to move beyond this emergency stage, beyond triage. We have a real problem as a nation. It took us years, if not decades to get here, and a 90-day public health emergency is not enough. America needs to launch a long-term recovery plan. Here’s how.
Our first responders need naloxone to save lives, period. We were encouraged to hear the president ensure they will receive this essential tool. Funding to ensure that more of this lifesaving overdose reversal medication gets into the hands of EMTs, law enforcement officials, and others in the community is crucial.
Just as important, however, is recognizing that naloxone only revives people from drug overdoses. We also need to get people into treatment. The second part of this is understanding that medication-assisted therapy (MAT) treatment is a tool, NOT a cure. MAT and detox alone are not effective, long-term solutions. A few days in medical detox after revival via naloxone is not a treatment plan. Addiction is a multifaceted, chronic disease. It requires accurate assessment, individualized treatment from a quality provider, and long-term disease management. The key to emerging from this epidemic lies in individualized care for appropriate lengths of stay. That is why, in addition to better public funding, we also need healthcare insurance companies to step up in providing more coverage for treatment.
We recently wrote that shame is the enemy of recovery. A cancer patient would not be judged for asking for chemotherapy, nor a diabetic coming forward for insulin. We’ll know we have succeeded in eradicating the stigma of addiction when the disease of addiction is looked at through the same lens as cancer or diabetes. Yet, many still view addiction as a moral failing instead of a legitimate health concern. As long as people are made to feel ashamed of substance use disorders, individuals and families will continue to stay silent when they need to ask for help.
Every day, someone is prescribed an opioid, tries heroin, or struggles with an active addiction to opioids. To create meaningful change, we need to enact swift prevention measures. Generations of Americans could be saved by stricter regulations for the companies manufacturing addictive medications, increased education for those prescribing them, coverage of alternative pain management methods by insurers, enforced parity for treatment coverage and an overall increased awareness of the disease. In addition to the administration’s proposed advertising campaign, there should be a broader effort in preventing usage among teens. Teen prevention campaigns can and do work, as proven by the recent Monitoring the Future report that indicates we’re seeing the lowest teen smoking rates in history. A long-term commitment to prevention is key to ending the cycle of addiction.
As with any individual in recovery entering a long-term program, we have a long road ahead to reach lasting stability. Addiction isn’t going away in 90 days, or 180. We don’t have another several months to wait for Congress and the administration to continue to act. Change must begin with each of us - today. We each can do our part to end the stigma of addiction by showing empathy and understanding toward those suffering and getting help for those close to us who might be struggling. Call your local, state, and federal representatives and tell them how important it is for them to keep fighting for more funding for this emergency. If we invest in solutions now – we can prevent excessive costs created by untreated addiction. Emergency Room visits would drop if we treated addiction chronically and not acutely, productivity would increase. The behemoth cost of our criminal justice system could be reduced if we treated people rather than jailing them.
I have hope that America can recover – but we must act swiftly and strategically to stem the tides of this insidious disease.
Originally published 10/26/17. Updated 10/30/17