The Obama administration has instructed federal agencies to begin taking a number of actions this week to address the national prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic.
“During Prescription Drug and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, we pause to remember all those we have lost to opioid use disorder, we stand with the courageous individuals in recovery, and we recognize the importance of raising awareness of this epidemic,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Deaths linked to addictive opioid drugs have increased more than fourfold since 1999, accounting for more deaths in 2012 than heroin and cocaine combined.
Prescription opioid abuse has claimed the lives of 165,000 Americans since 2000.
The new initiatives include expanding substance abuse treatment in the TRICARE system to include coverage of intensive outpatient programs and treatment of opioid addiction with medication-assisted treatment.
That’s a good start, according to Jeremy Sharp, a student at the University of North Georgia who founded the Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter.
“TRICARE is the civilian care component of the Military Health System,” Sharp explained. “Unfortunately, opioid dependence is rampant among our vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Addressing this problem properly is important. Medication-assisted treatment has proven to be effective in managing and then curbing opioid dependence.”
A second initiative includes increased measures to combat the supply of fentanyl from China to the United States.
“China is where all of the fentanyl is being manufactured,” Sharp said. “This is done on the industrial scale, with little regard to the consumer. Fentanyl’s effects are exponentially more powerful than other street drugs like heroin. Targeting China’s fentanyl production is long overdue. The problem, however, coincides with any black market; the second you disrupt production in China, another country then becomes a hub for production.”
The Obama administration is also increasing the patient limit from 100 to 275 for practitioners prescribing buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorders. Since July, 1,275 practitioners have applied for and been granted waivers to prescribe at the increased limit—improving access to medication-assisted treatment.
“Buprenorphine and other medication-assisted treatments have been proven to work,” Sharp said. “However, the U.S. lags in medication-assisted treatment when compared to our neighbor Canada, or some of our NATO allies. We should expand the arsenal in what drugs we include in medication-assisted treatment” beyond the usual suspects of methadone or buprenorphine.