Washington Is Paying Attention to Opioid Abuse

As drug-related deaths continue to increase, Congress and the Obama administration are responding.

By Caitlin Owens

Momentum is building around addressing opioid abuse in Washington as drug overdoses rapidly increase.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been holding a series of hearings on the topic; the latest, scheduled for Thursday morning, addresses what state governments are doing about the opioid epidemic.

Hillary Clinton said last month that she would address the issues of substance abuse and mental health as part of her campaign.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts—not usually a pair seen working together—wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell this week, asking her to call on the surgeon general to address opioid abuse and for more information on HHS's recently-announced initiative to reduce opioid-related deaths and addictions.

"This crisis of opioid related overdoses strikes without regard to geography, age, race, or socio-economic status and it requires an immediate and sustained response," McConnell said in a statement, calling opioid abuse a "public health crisis."

Opioid-related deaths—including both prescription drug and heroin overdoses—have been skyrocketing. Between 1999 and 2013, the death rate from painkiller overdoses nearly quadrupled. Heroin-related deaths increased by 39 percent from 2012 to 2013, and the drug's use has been increasing since 2007, according to an Energy and Commerce Committee white paper.

The opioid abuse epidemic can be traced, in part, to the overprescription of painkillers. The number of Americans seeking treatment for painkiller addiction has increased by 900 percent since 1997.

The HHS initiative, announced in March, will provide training and resources to health professionals to aid them in making prescription decisions, increase the use of naloxone—which is used to reverse the effects of narcotics—and expand the use of medication-assisted treatment, which combines medicine with counseling and behavioral therapies to address substance abuse.

Witnesses scheduled to speak at Thursday's House committee hearing include Jerome Adams, Indiana's health commissioner. Indiana has made headlines recently because of an HIV outbreak, resulting in Gov. Mike Pence allowing communities to seek approval to run needle exchanges in an attempt to control the spread of HIV or hepatitis C. The outbreak is tied to needle sharing among drug users injecting a liquified painkiller.



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