Health Care

Five Big Ideas to Halt America’s Opioid Epidemic

July 12, 2017  • Kathleen G. Sebelius & Tommy G. Thompson

Today, 91 Americans will die from an opioid overdose. Between the July 4th and Labor Day holidays, the death count will rise to nearly 6,400. Overdose deaths doubled between 2002 and 2015. On top of it all, public health experts say the nation’s worst-ever drug crisis is only going to escalate.

As the opioid epidemic rages on, two million Americans are abusing prescription pain relievers, and an additional 591,000 are addicted to heroin. The result: families pushed to the edge of desperation, an overwhelmed criminal justice system, emergency rooms that struggle to respond, and a bright future dimmed for far too many young Americans.

But here is the good news: at a time of so much rancor in the national discourse, this is an issue that transcends dogma. The opioid epidemic hits red and blue states, urban and rural settings, and people of every race and ethnicity without regard to political leaning.

The Aspen Health Strategy Group, which we co-chair, is bringing a sense of urgency to this issue. We are a nonpartisan group of 26 senior leaders in healthcare, business, technology, academia, and the media who believe that solutions to some of our most critical societal issues emerge from civil discourse, bold thinking, and the willingness to reach across the boundaries of discipline and ideology. This year, we are taking on the opioid crisis.

Gaining control over the opioid epidemic is a daunting challenge. Even though many other countries provide broader access to medicines at lower prices, far more opioid prescriptions are written in the United States. Past attempts to reduce access have often fostered flourishing black markets, increased the use of heroin and other illegal opioids, and encouraged the development of staggeringly potent and much more deadly synthetics.

Controlling the epidemic is also complicated by the reality that opioids are essential to many seriously ill patients and others dealing with severe, acute pain. The framework developed by the Aspen Health Strategy Group, following in-depth discussions and consultation with leading experts, builds on 15 years of bipartisan support for a model that has already helped millions of Americans.

At its core is a shift from a “tough on crime” approach, which is a proven failure, to an emphasis on health services and support. These patients and their families have already benefited from legislative changes under both the Bush and Obama administrations that significantly widened coverage for individuals suffering from substance-use disorders. Here are our ideas for immediate action.

Expand access to treatment through insurance.

Every person with an opioid use disorder should receive evidence-based treatment — demonstrably effective medications, coupled with counseling and behavioral therapies — that targets the whole patient and sustains recovery. This requires expanded treatment capacity, and reimbursement through private or public insurance.

Rein in overprescription of opioid pain relievers.

Doctors, dentists, and other providers should take immediate steps to end overprescribing, while ensuring that patients who need drugs for acute pain relief maintain access to them. Closer scrutiny of marketing methods, prescription practices, and prescription tracking data will all help reduce inappropriate prescribing.

Treat opioid addiction as a public health problem.

Addiction is a chronic medical condition — not a crime or a moral failing. Our country cannot arrest our way out of this health crisis. Jails and prisons are expensive and ineffective approaches to deal with it.

Stop drug overdose deaths with this solution.

Naloxone is an effective and easily administered therapy to counter opioid overdoses. It must be made more widely available to first responders, and others, to reduce the death toll and set individuals on a path towards treatment.

Learn how to treat pain with minimal side effects.

Surprisingly, there is much we still don’t know about long-term pain treatment — both with opioids and with other pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical approaches. Research is desperately needed.

As bipartisan health leaders, we urge Congress and state and local governmental officials to work with officials in healthcare, law enforcement, and the pharmaceutical industry — and most importantly, with patients and parents — to mobilize resources and set the right policy course. It has never been more important to come together, examine the evidence, and make strides against this deadly health challenge.

Kathleen G. Sebelius served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2009 to 2014 under President Obama and as the 44th Governor of Kansas from 2003 to 2009.

Tommy G. Thompson served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005 under President Bush and as the 42nd Governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001.

They are co-chairs of the Aspen Health Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute, an organization focused on leadership and innovation.

Originally published in The Hill.