Addiction in America: the Opioid Epidemic

Izzy Okparanta

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) remembers the exact moment when he grasped the gravity of the opioid epidemic. As he prepared to give a speech in Taunton, Massachusetts in 2014, he asked the mayor and police chief what was the biggest issue facing their town. “We’ve lost seven people to overdoses in just the last couple of weeks,” they replied. Two years later, he said, Massachusetts lost 2,000 people to opioid-related deaths. Sen. Markey joined other speakers to discuss this epidemic at the Washington Post’s program Addiction in America co-hosted by Battelle on June 21, 2017. “Unless we put in place the necessary prevention and treatment programs, the epidemic will explode,” he stressed.

More than 33,000 people died nationwide from prescription opioids and heroin in 2015 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number continues to rise. The reason for this is two-fold, according to Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City’s Commissioner of Health. Wen said insufficient resources, in addition to stigma, limit the ability of healthcare professionals to assist those seeking help, and only 1 in 10 people with addiction are able to get the treatment they need.

“In the ER I have patients coming in who know that they need treatment. They will tell me they need treatment. They may even have overdosed multiple times and now they’re seeking treatment,” Wen added. “But I tell them ‘I’m sorry, the next available treatment slot is in three weeks, or two months.’”

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told the story of a constituent in Oregon who had to drive five hours in order to receive the appropriate treatment for her opioid addiction.

“These issues don’t pick parties when they show up on your doorstep,” Walden said. He is hopeful that the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act, which allocates $1 billion for opioid prevention and treatment over two years, will help mitigate issues like this.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is looking to develop public-private partnerships with industry to create abuse-deterrent formulations, such as non-opioid analgesics, that aren’t as addictive as opioids, said Anne Pritchett, PhD, PhRMA’s Vice President of Research and Policy.

“Pain is not one size fits all, addiction is not one size fits all,” Pritchett said. It’s important to ask “what can we learn about biomarkers so that we can more appropriately target medications.”

NIDA Deputy Director Dr. Wilson Compton said there has been progress in addressing the epidemic, such as a decline in recreational opioid use among teenagers, from 10% about 10 or 15 years ago to under 4% today, and a decline in the overall number of opioids being prescribed by doctors. “It leveled off starting in 2012; that's a little bit of a hopeful sign," Compton said during a panel moderated by Joe Berger, Vice President and General Manager of Health and Consumer Solutions at Battelle. "But we need to do a better job, not just level off but actually decrease the number of prescriptions significantly."

The nation’s current piecemeal approach to addressing the opioid epidemic is akin to moving chairs around on the Titanic, said former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, member of the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

“We need to fundamentally come to a different approach [on] how to deal with mental illness and addiction in this country,” Kennedy said. “We have to make this a national priority if we expect to do anything to help change the nature of this illness and actually make a dent in the future suicide and overdose rates.”

Click here for video from the event.

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