“We are facing an addiction crisis likely to be the most deadly drug epidemic in the nation’s history.”
In June, I testified in Washington, D.C. at the first meeting of the new Presidential Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, speaking on behalf of the Rosenthal Center and as deputy chairman of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.
I used the occasion to bluntly tell members we are facing an addiction crisis likely to be the most deadly drug epidemic in the nation’s history. The numbers tell a tragic story: in 2016 nearly 60,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, mostly from opiates, a 20 percent increase over the year before. Over the next decade, opioids could kill between 500,000 and 650,000 Americans - nearly as many as HIV/AIDS killed in the 1980s, and equal to the number of those who will die from prostate and breast cancer - if the crisis of addiction and overdose accelerates, a STAT News report concluded.
The crisis is tearing at the fabric of our society, devastating families and communities as it spreads back to inner city neighborhoods, as well as to suburbs, from the rural areas hit hardest by the current epidemic. Addiction now touches almost every race, ethnicity and area of the country. According to recent data, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50; for the first time in a century the overall death rate for Americans in the prime of life is rising.
The terrifying reality is that nothing we’re doing today has been able to stop the spread of opioid addiction, an observation I made that was quoted in US News & World Report’s coverage of the hearing. Despite prescription monitoring programs, new pain management guidelines, and a raft of prevention and education programs, deaths from heroin and super-potent synthetics like fentanyl have gone through the roof, overwhelming hospital emergency rooms and healthcare workers.
We are engulfed in a perfect storm of disabling forces. Drugs like fentanyl and its even more powerful analogue carafentanil (an elephant tranquilizer) can be easily purchased online over the “dark web,” which is difficult for law enforcement to detect and disrupt. Enough powdery fentanyl to get 50,000 users high – or, more likely, to kill them – can fit into a first-class size envelope and be shipped anywhere.
Yet we do have the ability and knowhow to manage addiction. With the right treatment most addicts can come back to a full and fulfilling life for their families and for society.
Securing the future of Medicaid is critical to this goal. Cutting funding would severely endanger the lives of addicts, especially those with few social or economic resources. Medicaid is the largest payer for addiction services across the country, and to gut this entitlement program now would be “immoral and mean-spirited,” I said in a statement quoted by the New York Daily News.
If it does nothing else, the Commission should recommend the expansion of long-term residential treatment programs. Far too frequently, patients become trapped in a cycle of serial admissions and short-term treatment programs that are ineffective and inadequate, and often amount to merely postponing a fatal overdose, a comment that was mentioned in a PBS Newshour report on the hearing. For these patients, long-term residential treatment is most successful -although few states have sufficient long-term treatment capacity, and only one in ten addicts get the treatment they need.
I would hope the Commission, chaired by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, along with the Trump administration, Congress and state and local officials, listen carefully to what I and other experts had to say – and more importantly, that they take action sooner rather than later to seriously address this national health emergency.