The opioid crisis—really, tragedy—continues to grow exponentially in the United States. The starkest reflection of this crisis is the large and growing annual number of related deaths. In 2014, more than 29 thousand accidental deaths occurred as a result of prescription opioids or heroin. This number translates into more than 80 deaths every single day.
Opioids come in the form of prescription medications from the family medicine cabinet, prescription medications sold illicitly on the streets, or as illicit heroin. Users range from young children to the elderly, and every demographic group and geographic region of our country. Clearly, we are in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic.
Very fortunately, President Obama recently has made the federal response to the opioid crisis a top priority of his administration. Earlier this year, the president asked Congress to appropriate $1.1 billion in new funding to help every American with an opioid use disorder who wants treatment get the help they need.
Similarly, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell has made the departmental response to opioids her signature initiative, and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has taken impressive steps to address opioids in rural communities. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have made very important strides in the recent release of an opioid safety document and opioid medication guidelines, respectively.
March 29 was a watershed day for all of these initiatives. That day, the president spoke at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta. At the same time, the administration announced a dramatic series of important actions designed to address this problem directly. These actions are summarized below.
Expanding access to treatment
To expand access to buprenorphine and prevent diversion, HHS is issuing a proposed rule to increase the current patient limit for qualified physicians who prescribe this medication to treat opioid use disorders from 100 to 200 patients.
Earlier this month, HHS awarded $94 million in new funding to 271 community health centers to increase substance use disorder treatment services, with a specific focus on expanding medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in underserved communities. As many as 124,000 new patients may receive treatment in these health centers.
Up to 11 states will share in some $11 million in SAMHSA funding to expand their MAT services. The agency is distributing 10,000 clinical pocket guides containing a checklist for treating opioid disorders using medication, as well as non-pharmacologic therapies. In states with the greatest need, SAMHSA will help boost the number of physicians qualified to prescribe buprenorphine.
1. Establishing a Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Task Force: The president has directed the creation of an interagency task force, chaired by the Domestic Policy Council, to improve access to behavioral health treatment; promote compliance with best practices in parity implementation; and develop additional agency guidance, as needed. The task force, which spans federal departments and stakeholder organizations, has an October 31, 2016, deadline.