On Wednesday, February 26, The Hill hosted “America’s Opioid Epidemic: Lessons Learned & A Way Forward” sponsored by Indivior, a pharmaceutical company. According to a 2019 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths, and 47,600 of those deaths involved an opioid, which is a 9.6% increase since 2016. Speakers at the event, including policymakers and doctors, shared their goals and ideas for the prevention and treatment of opioid addiction.
The first speaker was Dr. Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Volkow talked about the impact social environment has on an individual’s wellbeing and how the “worst thing that can happen to someone… is to isolate.” When someone becomes addicted, they often lose their support system due to stigmatization, and Volkow emphasized the need for a social system that would provide support like family and friends do. Isolation increases vulnerability for drug use, which can lead to addiction. If a patient is treated but isolated, their “likelihood of relapse is very high,” according to Volkow.
There was also a panel that included Dr. Anika Alvanzo, Regional Director of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, Christina Andrews, Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina, Walter Ginter, Founding Project Director at the Medication Assisted Recovery Support, and Monique Tula, Executive Director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. They shared their perspectives on the importance of minimizing barriers to treatment. Barriers include access to treatment, lack of coverage, homelessness, and unemployment. Andrews referenced a study from Health Affairs that stated that among those that are Medicare eligible, only “20 percent of Americans live in a county that…offers medication and accepts their insurance.” All panelists advocated for increasing access in addition to protecting and increasing funding that provides prevention and treatment services to addicted individuals.
Congressmen Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Dave Joyce (R-OH) also spoke about plans to address the opioid epidemic from a federal level. Promisingly, both representatives agreed that there was bipartisan support. Congressman Joyce said, “no matter where you’re coming from, it’s happening in your district,” and that has motivated bipartisanship.
Congressman Tonko advocated for a three-pronged approach consisting of prevention, treatment, and recovery to address addiction. He sponsored bipartisan legislation, the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment Act (H.R. 2482), that removes the requirement for doctors to apply for a waiver through the DEA to prescribe buprenorphine, which treats opioid use disorder. Congressman Tonko also sponsored the Medicaid Reentry Act (H.R.1329), which would allow for Medicaid benefits for incarcerated individuals to start 30 days before they are released so they can start addiction treatment and services. The Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on March 3, 2020, covering both bills in addition to other legislation addressing the opioid epidemic.
On the other hand, Congressman Joyce introduced the Comprehensive Opioid Program Extension (COPE) Act (H.R. 1528) with bipartisan support. The COPE Act would increase the authorization level for the opioid abuse grant program by $70 million a year to increase resources for first responders on overdose reversal drugs such as Narcan and expand programs that prevent youth opioid abuse. Congressman Joyce shared that many schools in Ohio were starting to carry Narcan and train staff to administer it to overdosing individuals. Congressman Joyce urged, “we need to continue to fight and provide funding to those areas that work.”