“It is important to realize that today, we are seeing more people killed because of opioid overdose than traffic accidents,” President Obama told the press recently, announcing his administration’s plans to battle the prescription drug epidemic more efficiently, through a series of new initiatives.
Last month, the Obama administration had already pledged $1.1 billion to tackling the problem, though these initiatives will make it easier to fight the issue on many levels. Obama noted that the prescription drug problem affects everyone – “young, old, women, and children.” Drugs which are contributing to a rise in overdose deaths in the United States include OxyContin and Vicodine. Overdose rates are highest among the 25-45 age group, and also among non-Hispanic whites and Alaskan and American Indian natives. More men than women are affected, though the gap between the two groups is slowly closing. Moreover, statistics indicate that opioid addiction is fast becoming a problem of middle-aged white Americans.
Better Access to Medication
According to Obama, access to medication-based treatment for opioid use disorders will be broadened; medications such as methadone and buprenorphine have a good success rate when used alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (which aims to enlighten individuals on how they think and behave is interrelated and teach them to employ positive strategies in the face of stress). Studies have shown that the combined approach works better than behavioral therapy alone, cutting overdose rates by half. Currently, doctors are allowed to prescribe buprenorphine to just 100 patients; the administration is doubling that number. Around, around 30,000 doctors alone are qualified to administer this medication; some 2,200 additional doctors have already committed to completing training in buprenorphine treatment and this number will hopefully continue to rise, so more doctors can treat more patients effectively.
Increase Funds for Medical Treatments and a New Task Force
$11 million will go towards assisting states in providing medication-based treatment to recovering addicts. $94 million has also been pledged to some 271 community health centers, so they can provide treatment to patients. The Justice Department has also pledged $7 million to investigating and stopping heroin distribution. An additional $11 million will be provided to enable greater access to naloxone, a drug which stops death from opioid overdose by blocking or reversing the effects of opioids – these include extreme drowsiness, loss of consciousness and a reduced breathing rate. Just one day ago, a new study published in the journal Addiction, revealed that take-home naloxone should be an additional standard of care for the prevention of heroin overdose deaths; the drug reverses heroin overdose in 96% to 99% of all cases.
A new Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Task Force will be set up, in order to ensure access to coverage for behavioral health issues. The task force arises from the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which requires that health insurance cover mental health and substance abuse problems in the same way they cover physical illnesses. Mental health and substance abuse benefits will also be offered to those availing of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Greater guidance will also be provide by the Department of Health and Human Services regarding federally funded needle exchange programs.
Public Health professionals have already expressed their approval for the new initiatives, andn applauded the greater attention given to community health centers and needle exchange programs. The hope is that these efforts will reduce not only the rate of opioid addiction, but also Hepatitis C and HIV infections.
Many efforts have been taken over the past few months to fight the opioid epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued new opioid prescription guidelines, which aim to ensure that patients are able to access safer, more effective treatment for pain, while reducing the number of patients who abuse drugs. The guidelines state that opioid prescriptions have risen considerably over the years, and that the rates of prescription vary greatly from state to state, largely because there is little to no consensus among doctors regarding when prescription medications are truly needed. They add that there are several non-pharmacologic means of treating pain that have been proven to be effective, including exercise therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, etc. It is vital that doctors learn to balance the benefits and harms of opioid therapy, so that prescriptions are written in the right dose and only when absolutely necessary.