Fighting the U.S. Opioid Epidemic: Senate Passes Sweeping Legislation -

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Fighting the U.S. Opioid Epidemic: Senate Passes Sweeping Legislation

Fighting the U.S. Opioid Epidemic: Senate Passes Sweeping Legislation

The opioid crisis in the U.S. is not showing any signs of slowing down, and the public has been discussing how to solve it. After a closer, harder look at opioid abuse and its consequences, we now know how devastating the crisis is. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 11.4 million people misused prescription opioids. In 2017 an estimated 70 thousand people overdosed on opioids, and an increasing number of newborns is experiencing withdrawal symptoms due to the misuse of opioids during pregnancy.

The epidemic is undoubtedly deadly and one of the biggest health crises the U.S. has ever experienced. It’s at a point where it has to be battled systematically — and the new legislation aims to do precisely that. But does it go far enough?

The Opioid Crisis Response Act

The Opioid Crisis Response Act has quite remarkably been passed with a near-unanimous vote and has been drawn up using input from over 70 senators from both parties. That’s one of the things that show how severe the crisis is, given the current political climate in the U.S. Within the Opioid Crisis Response Act, some significant steps could help fight the opioid epidemic. Here’s what the bill aims to do:

  • Reauthorize funding from the Cures Act to make the tweaks to provide states with more flexibility in using the funding of $500 million a year;
  • Expands authorizes and creates new grant programs, that aim to serve the addiction treatment needs of their communities, help health care practitioners get waivers necessary to prescribe medications used for treating opioid addiction, and get more first responders (police, firefighters, etc.) to carry naloxone for treating opioid overdoses;
  • Expand Medicare and Medicaid access to addiction treatment as well as limit overprescription of opioids;
  • Improve coordination between federal agencies that work on stopping drugs like fentanyl from entering the U.S. and give agencies more tools that could help them improve testing and detection during border checks;
  • Increase penalties for drug distributors and manufacturers;
  • Fund more research projects for finding non-opioid pain medications;
  • Invest more money into law enforcement programs that stop illegal drug trafficking;
  • Advance initiatives that aim to raise awareness and educate healthcare providers on proper pain treatment.

These illustrate the general approach of the Senate in fighting the opioid crisis, which is broadly addressing the many issues related to it. From prevention to law enforcement and treatment, the bill takes the first steps towards stopping the crisis in its tracks. But is the bill lacking and is there more to do?

The Problem of Funding

While the effort made by the lawmakers to address the opioid crisis is undoubtedly commendable, some experts say it’s not enough. The most glaring issue is the funding, which falls remarkably short of what the experts’ estimate would be required to fight the crisis. According to some expert opinions, it would take anywhere between $45 billion and $60 billion over ten years to stop the crisis, with $500 million for research alone. When it comes to research, that’s 4 or 5 times more than what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is working with — which genuinely puts the problem into perspective.

On the other hand, it seems that the politicians are reluctant to put that kind of money towards fighting the crisis.

Proper Addiction Treatment

The bill also falls much shorter of the effort lawmakers had made to curb the HIV crisis (as well as matching the funding that was available for it.) Despite the opioid crisis being one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., it seems it’s still not being treated like a disease. The way opioid addiction is treated often doesn’t resemble the mainstream medical solutions.

It is supported by the fact that the state of the American addiction treatment infrastructure is not on a level it has to be to fight this crisis. According to the federal data, only one out of five people with an opioid use disorder seek specialty treatment. Added to the fact that not even half of the addiction treatment facilities provide opioid addiction medication such as buprenorphine or methadone to the opioid abusers who do seek out treatment, the big picture looks quite bleak despite the passing of the Senate bill.

With most other disease scares in the past, such as HIV/AIDS, Zika or Ebola, there was a systemic healthcare reform that required retraining the medical staff and hospitals to deal with those diseases. However, a nation-wide overhaul related to addiction treatment has not been developed or made, although some states such as Vermont have developed a model for it. And while the Opioid Crisis Response Act scratches the surface of making that reform, it still falls short of an actionable and robust response to the crisis.

How the Response Could Be Stronger

Even though no approach can solve the issue overnight, there are still more steps that can and should be taken in response to the severity of the opioid epidemic. On a full scale, that means developing more different types of opioid treatment in addition to methadone and buprenorphine, as well as the faster development of non-opioid painkillers. Additionally, greater efforts should be made to stop “doctor shopping” and overprescribing opioids by introducing stricter prescription drug monitoring programs. Finally, we also have to make a collective effort to address the causes of addiction and eliminate or minimize them, such as socioeconomic despair and mental health issues.

Even though the passing of the Opioid Crisis Response Act is a historical moment and a considerable achievement of legislation, it still should not be considered to be anything more than a necessary first step. As a nation, we have yet to fight this difficult battle, with more determination and strength. Prevention, more efficient treatment, and more funding will all be required in the coming years. Only with the united effort of both lawmakers and healthcare professionals can the outlook on opioid addiction be changed and the crisis is to be stopped for good.

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