The US is hooked on opioid painkillers, but it has come one step closer to dealing with the problem at last. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at curbing opioid addiction, and the Senate could vote on it soon as this week.
The bill, called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, will enable the federal government to fund state and local government initiatives targeting the problem. Such measures could include expanding treatment and prevention programmes, investigating illegal drug distribution, and training emergency workers in dealing with opioid overdoses.
In recent years, opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions and claimed high-profile victims. In 2014, nearly 20,000 people in the US died as a result of overdosing on prescription opioid painkillers, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“It’s taken a devastating toll on millions of Americans,” says Caleb Alexander of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, taking into account not only those who have died, but also those living with addiction and their family and friends.
Both prevention and treatment measures are needed, says Alexander: doctors must write fewer prescriptions for opioids, while treatment programmes for those who are addicted must be expanded. “Both of those are easier said than done,” he says.
“If you only do one or the other, you’ll fail,” says Andrew Kolodny of Phoenix House Foundation, an addiction treatment charity based in New York. “If we only focus on treatment and don’t do anything about the overprescribing, then the epidemic will never end – we’ll just keep creating more and more people who need treatment.”
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the bill last Friday, voting in favour of it 407 to 5. If the Senate also passes the bill, it will then land on President Obama’s desk for final approval.
But on its passage through the House, Democrats were unsuccessful in their attempt to secure $920 million for further treatment for addicts, many of whom cannot afford to pay out of their own pocket. Separate legislation is expected to provide $581 million for tackling opioid abuse.
“The bill is an important step in the right direction,” says Alexander. But given the magnitude of the problem, the money allocated in the bill may not go far enough, he says.
“Without funding, it will have little impact,” says Kolodny. “We need a massive investment in expanding access to effective treatment.”
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