In the Rosenthal Report for December, we look at:
- The promise and risk of innovation to fight the opioid epidemic
- How the drug industry is promoting “better” opioids with government help
- Why we need to stay focused on addiction treatments that work
Innovation is the latest buzzword when addressing the opioid epidemic, backed by the Trump administration and the pharmaceutical industry as a silver bullet solution to the crisis. But as government and private companies increase investments in research and development, we risk losing sight of the many effective treatments and approaches already at our disposal, such as the residential care that is so hard to find by many who now need it. While innovation is critical to advance addiction treatment, we won’t find easy answers solely with technology and new medications.
Many new products are already coming to market. The FDA recently approved two: an electronic earpiece that blocks opioid withdrawal symptoms by sending an electronic pulse through four cranial nerves to reduce nausea, anxiety, and pain; and a “digital” pill equipped with sensors that lets doctors closely monitor a patient’s pain level and frequency of drug use through a small data-storage device attached to the abdomen.
Pharmaceutical companies are gearing up as well, developing new forms of supposedly “better” opioids – in many cases, with government help. In an unusual move, the administration is promising substantial funding for public-private partnerships with the drug industry to develop non-addictive painkillers as well as so-called abuse-deterrent opioids, which Big Pharma claims will help curb substance abuse.
This is a troubling approach. We need to change lives, not drugs. And we can’t depend on technology – for all its promise – to do the hard work of addiction recovery. More importantly, we need to make sure the treatments that do work are easily available to a growing addict population.
Overdose reversal drugs, for example, are highly effective. But many municipalities across the country can’t get them because of limited supply and rising prices (one brand, Evzio, now costs $4,500 for two doses, up from $690 in 2014). Evidence-based prevention programs can work, especially for children and teenagers, but they were given scant notice in the opioid commission report.
Promoting abuse-deterrent opioids, especially with taxpayer money, is “insanity,” as a New York Times editorial put it. Abuse-deterrent is a misleading term referring to pills that are harder to crush or alter for injection or snorting, but have the same addictive properties and therefore won’t prevent someone from ingesting opioids or becoming addicted.
The Rosenthal Center believes that residential therapy of varying lengths – therapy that treats the whole person, with proven clinical practices and peer-based counseling - offers the best chance of sustained recovery. Yet today there are many places in the country where residential facilities are not available or affordable for many people. Far too often we hear tragic stories of addicts’ lives lost during a desperate scramble to find treatment and the means to pay for it.
This is a failure of government policy and funding priorities. The Rosenthal Center will continue to strongly support increased funding to expand the treatments and programs that we know help save lives every day.