ATLANTA — Federal help is on the way for hospitals across the country attempting to deal with a raging drug epidemic killing 91 Americans each day.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced last week that his agency is sending some $485 million in funding to help battle the scourge of death inflicted by prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl. As a sign of how widespread this epidemic has become, dollars are going to all 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories and the free associated states of Palau and Micronesia.
Trade groups in the health care space, such as the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association, praised the announcement last week. In a statement Friday, Ashley Thompson, senior vice president of policy for the AHA, said hospitals are dedicated to ending the “devastation caused by addiction.” Efforts undertaken by the field have included addressing prescribing practices, exploring new ways of managing pain, educating patients on opioid risks and implementing new addiction treatment strategies (read more about these efforts at the AHA's resource page). But despite those efforts, alongside engaging with communities, forming coalitions, and partnering with providers, schools, health departments, law enforcement and pharmacies, the numbers continue to worsen.
“All of this action has not been enough to stem the tide of opioid addiction and we are eager to work with the administration as it continues to explore ways to combat the epidemic,” Thompson said.
Price made the announcement Wednesday, during the final full day of the Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, billed as the largest gathering focused on this issue, and put together by Operation UNITE and U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), whose state has been ravaged by overdose deaths. Halting the epidemic was a key priority for the Obama administration in its final term, and Price said that it will continue to under President Donald Trump’s White House.
We lost about 52,000 individuals to drug overdoses in 2015 (the year in which the most recent data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Price noted. That’s more than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in combat during the Vietnam War, and our country’s involvement lasted over a decade.
“We lose a Vietnam every single year to drug overdose, 33,000 of those by opioid overdose, and I’m here to tell you that we as a nation need to say, ‘That is enough and it must be stopped,’” he said.
This will be the first of two rounds of funding as part of the 21st Century Cures Act enacted in December, with another round of about $500 million going out next year. Dollars come by way of the State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis Grants administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, according to a release.
Grant amounts this year range anywhere from more than $27 million to the state of Florida, to $250,000 to the Virgin Islands, based on the rate of opioid overdose deaths and current unmet need for opioid addiction treatment, according to the release. Dollars will be used to help support “a comprehensive array of prevention, treatment and recovery services, depending on the needs of the recipients.” As part of these efforts, Price noted, the administration also recently established the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which Trump has charged with assessing the current federal response and coming up with recommendations.
In his remarks at the Summit, Price highlighted five target areas in which the federal response will focus as it aims to end the epidemic:
- Strengthening public health surveillance
- Advancing the practice of pain management
- Improving access to treatment and recovery services
- Targeting availability and distribution of overdose-reversing drugs
- Supporting cutting edge research
About 90 percent of those struggling with addiction are not getting treatment, Price noted. And there are numerous unanswered questions that the health care sector must answer: What kinds of new treatments, pharmaceutical and otherwise, can help us in this fight? Are there new kinds of pain killers that are less addictive and safer? And can we develop a vaccine for opioid addiction?
Price urged providers and hospitals to continue waging their battle against this problem, and not to lose hope.
“You might say, ‘Well, we’ve got to be losing this fight. The numbers are going in the wrong direction.’ But then you come to an event like this and you don’t see despondency or despair, you see hope and confidence and ingenuity. Over the last few years, as the epidemic has worsened, the coalition of individuals and families and institutions committed to solving it has only grown bigger and stronger and bolder. You all have refused to give up. You have refused to turn your backs on our brothers and sisters in the middle of this crisis.”