By Brittney Gerteisen
On Tuesday, January 9, the Senate HELP Committee continued their examination of the spread of opioid addiction by hearing from one witness, author Sam Quinones. Sam Quinones is the author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” an award-winning book published in 2015 that tells the story of how opiates have drastically changed America and will continue to do so until communities unite. The purpose of the testimony was to provide suggestions on how senators could tackle the opiate epidemic. More than eight senators had the book with them during the hearing.
Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) opening statement cautioned his colleagues to “…restrain our habit of lecturing one another about health insurance and focus today on the opioid crisis.” He went on to describe the increasing death toll of drug overdoses and the extreme numbers of prescription opioids, say that, “…in our state [Tennessee] of 6.6 million people, there were 7.6 million opioid prescriptions written in 2016.” For her part, Ranking Member Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) said that the epidemic is broader in scope and she touched on child welfare saying,
“This epidemic hurts families. It leaves children struggling to cope with the impact of their parent’s addiction. It leaves many of them in foster homes. It leaves parents shattered with the heartbreak of their child’s illness, and leaves many struggling with the financial costs of opioid misuse and treatment and recovery as well. And this epidemic hurts our communities as a whole.”
Sam Quinones spent many years researching the opiate epidemic and was able to provide senators with information on the causes of the epidemic, why this epidemic is continuing to grow, and why it does not have one solution, but multiple solutions. A key point he made and heard in many other Hill hearings was that the opiate crisis is being spread by doctors who are attempting to manage common aches, pains and more substantial pain management. Mr. Quinones is not solely blaming doctors but also raised the need to have a more comprehensive and long-term strategy when it comes to addressing this country’s addition problem.
During the questioning period, Quinones pushed back on the suggestion that a wall separating the United States from Mexico will help decrease drug usage because American will still have more access to drugs than any other country. He emphasized that there is no simple fix, or what Mr. Quinones called a “silver bullet” solution.
The biggest problem with the opiate crisis is that everyone is affected. Families are being torn apart, physicians are running out of treatment options, jails are non-threatening, jobs are left open because people cannot pass drug tests, and foster care is overcrowded with children who have been separated from their parents due to drugs. Mr. Quinones supports the idea of funding for research on treatment options, and human pain levels. The government could gain control of the opiate epidemic but to do so will require the government to utilize greater energy and focus.
At one-point Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) suggested that the increased use of opioids coincided with the expanded access to Medicaid coverage. Quinones rejected that indicating we did have an overuse of prescription medication but people need access to drug treatment. He suggested doctors need to be more aware of how many pills are distributed with an opiate prescription, who the prescription is being released to, and if the opioid dose corresponds to what is being treated.
As part of an ongoing strategy he suggested that people who have been affected by this epidemic need to start telling their stories because stories have the power to help others understand the reality of the situation at hand. Part of the challenge, the senators and the author agreed on, is the need to address the stigma of addiction which must be a part of the strategy to better address treatment needs.