Opinion Editorial: Opioid Addiction and Death
The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl – is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare. The rate of opioid addiction continues to skyrocket despite the introduction of programs designed to combat its pervasiveness, funding to encourage treatment for patients and training for providers, and policies aimed at reducing the availability of opioids. It is the most challenging problem facing the health department, yet the majority of opioid deaths are preventable. Fighting this epidemic requires a real-time, multifaceted approach that focuses on life-saving measures, proactively identifying programs and resources to prevent future abuse, and allocating funds to treat addicts whenever and wherever they are found. Incarceration does not solve the problem!
Excessive finger pointing between the pharmaceutical industry, physicians, politicians, and the drug users themselves, is mindless. Year after year, drug makers, distributors, prescribers and politicians have contributed to the problem, by looking the other way and, in many cases, benefiting from the deaths that ensued. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Bill Whitaker asks incarcerated Florida physician Barry Shultz to define his culpability in the ongoing epidemic. It is no surprise that he proclaims himself to be a scapegoat. The pharmaceutical companies and politicians’ responses are consistent and offer little in the form of viable solutions or strategies to nullify the continued proliferation of opioid addiction and death. Even as opioids flood American communities and fuel widespread addiction, hospitals are facing a dangerous shortage of the powerful painkillers needed by patients in acute pain, according to doctors, pharmacists and a coalition of health groups.
Policy solutions developed around the concept of making treatment for addiction easier to access than the opioids themselves, is a great start! For reference, a 2016 study by Florence, Zhu, Lou, & Xu, estimated the total economic burden of prescription opioid overdose, misuse, and addiction at $78.5 billion in 2013, about a third of which was due to higher health care and drug treatment costs. By deductive reasoning, the conclusion that billions could be saved in the long-term, is pragmatic.
Leadership is a top-down concept. Consequently, the president remarking that drug dealers deserve the death penalty for their role in opioid-related deaths and addiction, is not only absurd and disappointing, it does nothing to resolve the crisis, except erroneously place ownership on drug dealers as the sole source of the problem of opioid addiction and death in our communities. In spring 2018, Congress added an additional $500 million to the NIH budget to invest in science to find solutions to the opioid crisis. Additionally, the Helping End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative aims to improve opioid addiction treatments and enhance pain management to prevent addiction and overdose.
These types of collaborative approaches to combating opioid addiction on multiple fronts is what is necessary to end the epidemic. We can no longer afford to sit idly by while pointing the finger at other entities in hopes of one group claiming full responsibility. In the interim, people are dying and the cost of healthcare is rising. We must identify and implement compatible strategies and solutions to end this epidemic now! Otherwise, we are doomed to face the consequences of our inactions and inability to change the outcomes of those facing addiction.