How Working Together Can Address the Growing Opioid Epidemic

| MAR 1, 2018 | 11:04 PM
 IJR Opinion is an opinion platform and any opinions or information put forth by contributors are exclusive to them and do not represent the views of IJR.

Spencer Platt / Staff/Getty Images

Today more than 100 Americans will die of an overdose involving prescription drugs. More than 65,000 fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters lost their lives to illicit drugs and opioids in 2016 — a rate that has doubled in the last decade.

Addiction and drug abuse is a deeply personal issue for thousands of families across the country. It’s estimated that nearly half of Americans have a family member or close friend who is battling addiction. These battles are not limited to opioid usage, but prescription pill and heroin abuse continues to rise and claims more lives every year.

Up until the explosion of media attention over the last several years, opioid addiction and abuse were unfamiliar to many Americans. While traveling on the Women2Women Conversations Tour in 2014, many of us had not yet heard much about these abuses, nor were we aware of the widespread addiction and problems related to these powerful narcotics. But that quickly changed.

During these tour stops, we meet with women who are engaged, involved, and passionate about the political process. We try to learn about the issues that are most important to them, the questions they have for their lawmakers, and how Washington can better serve the needs of their communities. On our tour stop with Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) in Indiana, participants had a few direct questions for lawmakers in Washington — what was being done to address the growing opioid epidemic? And how can we better work together to save lives?

We took these concerns back to Washington. We learned that this issue doesn’t discriminate — members from nearly every state had heard from their constituents about opioids and prescription pill abuse. It was clear that Washington needed to act. Our members and their colleagues began work on some of the most far-reaching addiction treatment legislation ever passed, which expanded resources and support for those who were struggling with addiction and drug usage. Two major pieces of legislation, the 21st Century Cures Act and The Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA) were both signed into law by President Obama in 2016.

The new programs created by these bills and grant funding for addiction treatment centers are beginning to make progress in combating the spread of addiction, but such a widespread problem requires further action at every level.

In October, President Trump declared a national public health emergency in response to the crisis. This week the White House is continuing the conversation and hosting a summit with stakeholders and key leaders from U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Both of these efforts signal a commitment to addressing this epidemic. But our work in Washington is far from over.

At the end of January, we commissioned a poll of 800 registered voters across eight key suburban districts from coast-to-coast. When asked about the issues that most concerned the participants, more than half said they were “very worried” or “extremely worried” about the opioid crisis. Members of the Republican Main Street Partnership understand the damage this epidemic has caused in their districts and their communities; that is why they are committed to leading the continued effort to pass legislation and deliver solutions for the countless Americans who continue to be affected.

With a wealth of knowledge gained from families, health care professionals, and law enforcement our members are working on a three-tiered approach to address the continuing crisis. To be effective we need to expand access to addiction treatment programs, provide law enforcement with the tools they need to keep drug dealers and synthetic drugs off the street, and provide better prescription guidelines and non-addictive alternatives to opioids.

In Williamson, West Virginia, it was recently revealed that two local pharmacies in the town of just over 3,000 residents have dispensed more than 20.8 million prescription painkillers in the last decade. In California, more than five counties have had more prescriptions for opiates dispensed than there are people. To stop the flow of these drugs, this dangerous overprescription has to stop. Just this week, Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) introduced the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 2.0 Act, bipartisan legislation that expands on the programs authorized under CARA and limits opioid prescriptions for acute pain to three days. By limiting the amount of pain medication that can be dispensed, we can reduce the number of Americans worried about a family member or loved one abusing leftover pills.

Another way to address this epidemic head-on is to increase the supply of non-addictive pain medicine. Introduced by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), the Advancing Cutting-Edge (ACE) Research Act, would give authority to U.S. National Institutes of Health to fast-track research on non-addictive pain drugs and additional methods of care for those in need of full-time pain management. By replacing highly addictive pain medicine often found in a family’s medicine cabinet with a non-addictive alternative, we can reduce the risk of abuse and help more Americans effectively manage pain.

We also need to provide law enforcement with the tools they need. This is not about arresting more users or punishing addicts. Our police and prosecutors need to attack this problem at its source by targeting the dealers and importers of synthetic opioids. The Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act (SITSA) introduced by Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) would modernize federal drug laws to add a new category for the deadliest synthetic drugs. This includes 13 synthetic fentanyls that have been identified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as an immediate threat to public health. This new law would empower prosecutors to quickly get dangerous drug dealers off the streets and streamline sentencing procedures for the manufacture and sale of synthetic drugs.

Too many families have suffered the heartbreak of losing a family member or friend to addiction. Over the past few years, many steps have been taken to help save lives — but more resources, support, and research is needed to help those who are struggling.

By cutting back on over prescription, empowering law enforcement to get dangerous drug dealers off the streets, and providing alternatives to opioids for pain management, we can save lives and help families nationwide combat addiction.