Several new initiatives to combat opioid addiction were announced by the Obama administration on Tuesday. The initiatives make it easier for doctors to use anti-addiction medication in the fight against the exploding epidemic of opioid abuse. In addition, the new proposal includes increasing coverage for mental health and substance abuse services.
An Exploding Epidemic
Overdose deaths from opioids such as heroin and prescription drugs like hydrocodone are the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans. Every 19 minutes someone dies from an opioid overdose.
Current treatment strategies include behavioral treatment and medication such as methadone and buprenorphine. Medication-assisted treatment is a key component of the administration’s proposal to curb the opioid epidemic.
In response to reporters, Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said "Expanding access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid-use disorders has been a top priority for this administration. Research clearly shows that this approach, when combined with behavioral therapies, is more effective at sustaining recovery and preventing overdose." Some critics have raised concerns that drugs like methadone – which has abuse potential of its own – may lead to further addiction. However, experts counter that medications such as methadone cut the mortality rate in half.
Physicians are currently limited by law to prescribing buprenorphine to just 100 patients per doctor. The White House proposes increasing this cap to 200 patients per doctor. However, special training is required to prescribe the drug. As of now, only about 30,000 doctors have privileges to do so. The new initiative proposes doubling the number of prescribing physicians over the next three years. Given that the heroin epidemic has especially taken hold in rural and suburban areas, it is crucially important to expand care to these areas as well.
In addition, the White House also announced $11 million to go toward state efforts to expand treatment programs and another $94 million in funding treatment services for some 270 community health centers nationwide. Other initiatives include:
- $11 million to increase access to naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug
- Establishing a Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Task Force
- $7 million for the Department of Justice to go toward policing and investigating heroin distribution
- Guaranteeing that mental health benefits are offered as medical and surgical benefits for those enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The Long Road Ahead
While there are signs that our nation is getting a handle on the prescription opioid problem, in many ways the issue of heroin is getting worse. Daniel Raymond, policy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition states “Now that we're taking more action on heroin, now we're seeing illicit fentanyl get worse. The problem is spiraling. We had an over-reliance on prescription painkillers. We're going to be paying for the original sins for many years to come. And the problem (that) could have gotten under control earlier is going to be affecting a whole generation.”