November 21, 2017

Let’s support all those walking the hard but noble path to recovery

THE OPIOID ADDICTION gripping the U.S. has hit my home state of Rhode Island hard. In 2015, Rhode Island had the fourth highest rate of deaths by opioid overdose in the country, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That year, the town of Burrillville, population 16,000, lost six residents to drug overdoses in just the first three months. From 2011 to 2016, overdose deaths in our state increased by more than 90%.

We are, of course, far from alone. Virtually every community in America has been touched by this public health crisis. Its roots are complex. Opioids have been routinely prescribed in massive quantities, sometimes without any consideration of patients’ history with addiction. Bottles of opioids sat in millions of American medicine cabinets, fueling the illegal recreational market. After people become addicted to prescription pills, many turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative. With the addition of the synthetic opioid fentanyl—some 50 times more potent than heroin—rates of overdose worsened further in recent years. Overdose deaths related to fentanyl increased 15-fold in Rhode Island since 2009, accounting for more than half of all our overdose deaths last year.

All of these factors add up to a public health emergency. I worked for more than three years with Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio—another epicenter of addiction and overdose—to enact the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. The effort ultimately received tremendous bipartisan support in Congress, as the opioid crisis has surged through red and blue states alike. President Barack Obama signed the measure into law in July 2016.

Now, after years of research and negotiations, we are at last taking national action to save lives and help families struggling with addiction. The new law takes a thorough, multi-pronged approach to our drug crisis. It will help ensure that prescribers are following responsible guidelines, and that unused prescription drugs are safely disposed. It increases access to the overdose antidote Narcan and provides more access to effective medication-assisted treatment. It will support new, more comprehensive community treatment solutions.

As coauthors of the bill, the first major addiction legislation in four decades, Sen. Portman and I set out to ensure that federal dollars are allocated toward solutions that have proved successful across the states. The law was born out of the recognition that the opioid epidemic demands collaboration among public health, law enforcement, and treatment professionals.

We also wanted to root the law, and its implementation, in the truth that addiction is an illness deserving of treatment, not a moral failure best deterred by incarceration and shunning. Despite the American Medical Association’s acknowledgment in 1987 that alcohol and drug dependency are diseases, our public policies continued for decades to emphasize “tough on crime” punishments over prevention and rehabilitation.

An understanding has emerged in recent years, thanks both to advances in the study of the neurology and genetics of addiction, and to the intimate experiences of so many millions of American families, that addiction is a physical and psychological disease that cannot be eradicated through law enforcement alone. Last November, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released a report devoted entirely to the science and consequences of addiction that clearly defined addiction as a public health crisis.

With this perspective, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act seeks to help first responders, healthcare providers, family members, law enforcement, and everyone on the front lines of this crisis work together to care for those afflicted.

Those walking the road from addiction to recovery follow a hard but noble path. This journey can be daunting without adequate support. In 2013, nearly nine out of 10 people in need of drug treatment in this country did not get it. And for many, relapses come, and they have to re-engage. We owe it to every person walking that road to provide adequate resources.

In order to honor the new law’s promise with real funding, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act in December, allocating $1 billion in grants for states to prevent and treat addiction. Half of that funding has already been deployed, with the other half set to be approved in the coming months. Appropriators are ramping up the treatment accounts. With the tools of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in hand, and the funding to fully achieve its objectives, we can get on to the critical task of saving as many lives as we can, as soon as we can.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse