Nearly a year ago, in October of 2017, President Donald J. Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency, telling an audience in the East Room of the White House, “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.” States began tapping a $1 billion federal grant program to help fight the problem.
How’s that effort going?
According to new preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses killed about 72,000 Americans last year. That is a record, reflecting about a 10 percent increase from 2016 when 63,632 drug overdose deaths were reported — that, a 22 percent hike from the year prior.
Clearly, whatever response we as a country have been able to muster is failing.
How big is the problem? A large government telephone survey suggests that around 2.1 million Americans had opioid use disorders in 2016, according to The New York Times, but that number may be an undercount because not all drug users have telephones and some that do may not mention their drug use because of the stigma. The real number, according to Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, could be as high as four million.
Just as troubling, while a growing number of Americans are using opioids, drugs are becoming more deadly. The CDC reports that overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids — specifically, fentanyl — rose sharply.
How specific is the problem to West Virginia?
In 2016, the rate of drug overdose deaths here at home was 52 per 100,000 — the highest of all states by a wide margin. New Hampshire and Ohio checked in next with a rate of 39.0, while the U.S. rate had climbed to 19.8. Last year, the OD death rate in the Mountain State worsened, spiking more than 17 percent.
The statistics say emphatically that this problem has not been put to bed, and the tangential evidence suggests that we are being overwhelmed. As The Register-Herald of Beckley reported last week, the number of women giving birth with opioid use disorder quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, according to another CDC report. One of the higher rates (32.1 cases per 1,000 deliveries) was here in West Virginia. Newborns exposed to drugs while in the womb can suffer severe complications, including withdrawal, preterm birth and death. If those babies survive, they face long-lasting implications for brain structure and function. Their recovery is long and painful.
And, yes, their care will burden society via medical and social services.
All of the reports and statistical analyses point to the severity of the country’s opioid epidemic. Congress? A legislative package idles in the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, those who may be seeking treatment are finding no room at the inn as treatment centers are facing funding challenges.
Recovery Point, a planned 100-bed, longterm treatment center in Mount Hope, is struggling to open. Executive Director Matt Boggs said only a few months are needed to finish renovations. But without operational funding, “We’ll renovate and not be able to operate.”
Clearly, the numbers say, there is a need. Just as obvious, there is money available in this the richest nation on the face of the planet.
Building a budget is a matter of Congress setting priorities that best serve our nation. We could spend tens of billions of dollars on putting up a border wall between Mexico and the U.S., we could dedicate — as Congress has — $80 billion in additional funding this year over last to the Department of Defense, or Lord only knows how many billions towards launching a proposed Space Force. We could even cut a trillion-dollar check to the rich and the corporations they run to pay for a massive tax cut. In fact, the Republican-controlled Congress did just that.
Or we could invest in our people, in healthy outcomes through a multi-pronged strategy to cure our collective addiction, addressing supply and demand, prescribing and distribution, treatment, support and education.
It will not be cheap and it will certainly cost more than the $1 billion the president laid out last October. It will also take innovation and courage to try new approaches and find best practices.
In Dayton, Ohio, after instituting an emergency response strategy, the county health department has documented reductions in overdose deaths, emergency room visits and ambulance calls in the past year. A similar initiative just up the road in Huntington is showing equal promise.
So, yes, there are needs and there are answers — none of which will be reached by blaming the user, the doctor, the pharmacist or the pharmaceutical company. All are complicit to one degree or another, but now — if we are serious about this — we must push forward.
If we are to be the generation that finds the cure for the opioid overdose crisis, then we must make that effort a priority — at the local, state and national levels. It takes more than words, more than a proclamation.
Or we can watch the numbers climb as we bury our dead.
It’s on us.
— The Register-Herald