A 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2001 and 2013, there was a threefold increase in deaths from prescription drug overdoses, and a fivefold increase in deaths from heroin overdoses. The rapid uptake in heroin use is caused by people switching to it after abusing prescription drugs. While law enforcement, healthcare workers, and social workers all have different proposals to deal with this growing problem, it is clear to all that it is a national emergency that requires definitive and multifaceted action. In October of 2015, President Obama got into the action, issuing an official memorandum of his current plan to stem the growing tide of abuse of these drugs, and help addicts find treatment. He also traveled to West Virginia to speak on the issue and meet people personally affected by this drug problem.
Here are some of the details behind the President’s plan to deal with this serious crisis.
Expand access to drugs that can help:
Buprenorphine is an opioid medication that can produce mild effects such as euphoria, but at far lower levels than other drugs in the class. Because of this, it has shown some promise as a way to help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and help people “tapper off” their opioid abuse on the way to full sobriety. However, proper use of the drug involves the supervision of a trained health care provider, who must carefully monitor the patient closely. Currently, only 30,000 physicians can prescribe buprenorphine, and Obama’s plan would double that number. Current rules set by the Department of Health and Human Services limits one doctor to offer medication-assisted recovery to 100 patients, and those rules might soon be changed.
Naloxone is a drug that can reduce the effects of an opioid or heroin overdose, saving someone’s life and causing the drug to have no effect. Obama’s plan would double the availability of Naloxone, and the chain pharmacies CVS and Rite Aid will cooperate by making the drug more available, sometimes without a prescription.
Some physicians and health care providers have not received adequate training on the safe use of opioid painkillers. These very addictive drugs have sometimes been overprescribed and given in cases where less dangerous medications, or lower dosages may have worked just as well. In reaction to this reality, the plan calls for dramatically expanding physician training, so that every health care provider is aware of the risks of opioid painkillers, and can take steps to prescribe them safely. Working together with more than 40 medical groups, this plan expects to train 500,000 doctors and dentists.
Treatment, not punishment:
There is an emerging bipartisan consensus that treating drug addicts as criminals has not alleviated the problems of addiction and substance abuse. The President’s new plan argues for an approach centered on treatment rather than punishment, and on health care rather than criminal justice. Under new proposals, medication-assisted detox will be available in prisons, alongside other programs that support real recovery.
Rules set by the Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover treatment for addiction just as it would for any other medical condition. That part of the law only took effect in January 2015, and many insurers have been slow to recognize recovery as something they will cover. In his speech, Obama called on insurance companies to take treatment for addiction, saying, “The notion that you’re going to cover a broken leg but not going to cover an illness in which your child might die? That doesn’t make sense.”
Obama recognizes that addiction is first and foremost an illness, and that a compassionate, treatment-based approach is going to be most effective way to bring addicts to recovery, and prevent the abuse of these drugs from expanding further.