2017: A Year of Challenges and Missed Opportunities
The opioid epidemic continued to plague the nation last year, despite renewed efforts by cities, states and the Trump administration—which declared a public health emergency in October—to address the crisis. Urban and rural, white and black, rich and poor, young and old: no community or demographic was immune to the scourge of addiction and the unrelenting rise in overdose deaths. As the New York Times concluded in an article at the end of the year, the country’s addiction crisis “ranks among the great epidemics of our age.”
Drug overdose data for 2016, released by the CDC last year, confirmed the unrelenting advance of the epidemic: more than 63,000 people died, mostly adults between 25 and 54 and more men than women. There was a surprising uptick in deaths among African-Americans in urban counties, which shifted perceptions of the epidemic as a predominantly white and rural phenomenon. Deaths caused by the highly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl surged, as did overdoses from cocaine mixed with opioids. West Virginia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania remained among the hardest hit states, as did the District of Columbia. But New York City also reported a record 1,374 drug overdose deaths, a nearly 47 percent spike over the previous year.
There were a few glimmers of hope. Many states implemented ambitious and well thought out anti-drug programs: the strategy in Massachusetts includes tougher prescription drug monitoring, wider use of overdose reversal drugs, and increasing the number of addiction treatment beds, which together is expected to drive down the number of deaths by 10 percent. The Trump health emergency announcement was a positive step that drew media attention to the epidemic. The White House special commission on opioids, to which I contributed expert testimony, produced an extensive report with recommendations that included an increase in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) which combines behavioral therapies with drugs to reduce withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
Unfortunately, the administration missed an opportunity to back the report and the emergency declaration with additional funding for drug treatment programs and services. At a time when drug overdoses are the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50, the GOP-controlled Congress tried but failed to repeal Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, which would have undermined programs that provide a critical share of addiction treatment dollars. Attorney General Sessions, for his part, signaled approval of maximum sentencing and incarceration for even minor drug offenses – tactics that we know do not address the underlying causes of addiction.
As the year unfolded, the Rosenthal Report tracked many of the issues that had an impact on the opioid epidemic. These included mandatory treatment for addiction; a barrage of lawsuits against opioid makers; the economic consequences of the crisis; treatment innovations; and new studies purporting to show that marijuana could be used as a safe alternative painkiller to opioids.
Most importantly, the Rosenthal Center continued to advocate for immediate emergency funding to the states. We proposed a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in the federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant, as well as a massive increase in funding, totaling $100 billion over the next decade, for a bold national plan to tackle this crisis. This money would be used to expand access to long-term residential treatment, which offers the best hope of recovery to vulnerable drug users most at risk of overdose; ensure that behavioral therapy is an essential component of MAT; and provide states with the ability to implement more education and prevention programs and the tools to get more addicts into comprehensive treatment.
Provisional data suggests that drug-related deaths continued to climb in 2017. And yet I still believe we can overcome this crisis. We have the knowledge, resources and expertise to treat the more than 20 million Americans with addiction problems, only a fraction of whom now receive help. We need the money and the political will to get the job done. This is the message of optimism I voiced last year - in the Rosenthal Report, in talks and media appearances, at professional conferences and in videos on our website – and will continue to do so in 2018.