The death toll from the corona virus recently surpassing 100,000 marks a grim milestone, as states grapple with reopening the country while protecting the public from further spread of the pandemic. In the shadow of this tragedy is another deadly epidemic that must be addressed—the opioid crisis that has killed more than 400,000 Americans over the past two decades. In this edition of the Rosenthal Report, we look at major issues surrounding the opioid crisis and the pandemic.
“Deaths of Despair” Expected to Rise
Drug overdoses and fatalities are increasing in many regions of the country, as those struggling with substance abuse during the pandemic face the challenges of sheltering in place and obtaining drug treatment—as well as economic hardships. These can be categorized as “deaths of despair,” a term broadly defined by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton as resulting from long-term social and economic decline.
According to a new report by the Well Being Trust, the massive unemployment, mandated social isolation and extraordinary uncertainty Americans are experiencing due to the pandemic will likely cause this level of “despair” to grow. The report forecasts an additional 75,000 “deaths of despair” from alcohol, substance abuse and suicide over the next decade—on top of nearly 70,000 deaths annually from drug overdose. Now, more than ever, we must address the root causes of these deaths by allocating significant funding for both economic development and the expansion of drug treatment and mental health services. Even if the corona virus winds down in the months ahead, the ongoing opioid crisis will test our commitment to those who have been forgotten about for too long.
Note to Congress: Fix the Drug Treatment Funding Snafu
More money could have been flowing to drug treatment programs through the nearly $2 trillion CARES Act approved by Congress for wide-ranging pandemic relief efforts. Unfortunately however, a technicality involving eligibility requirements for Medicare and Medicaid allowed only a small portion of the $175 billion in emergency aid earmarked for hospitals and other healthcare facilities to be set aside for drug treatment centers that serve nearly a million patients (Medicaid alone is the biggest payer of addiction services). Congress could easily fix this bureaucratic glitch—and thereby unleash millions of dollars for drug treatment as facilities anticipate a crush of new patients.
Opioid Lawsuits Target Pharmacy Chains
Despite the pandemic lockdown, opioid lawsuits are continuing nationwide with huge pharmacy chains including CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens and Walmart coming into the legal crosshairs. After initially eluding close scrutiny, these chains—along with prescription pill manufacturers and major drug distributors—are now being accused of complicity in the opioid epidemic for failing to monitor or regulate the flood of painkillers distributed by their retail outlets. For example, one recently unsealed complaint charges that between 2006 and 2014 more than 64 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone painkillers were disbursed in one Ohio county alone—the equivalent of 290 pills for every man, woman and child residing there.
The complaint also details allegations of corporate greed and misconduct at an unprecedented scale. Pharmacy chains purportedly offered bonuses to pharmacists who filled a high-volume of opioid prescriptions, promoted extremely addictive opioids as safe and effective, and helped distributors avoid federal oversight. Whether the thousands of opioid lawsuits will eventually come to trial or end with a nationwide settlement remains uncertain. What is clear, from the latest revelations, however, is pharmacy chains must also be held accountable for the suffering and death they’ve helped to cause.