Weekly Columns

According to a report in Time magazine, overdose deaths from opioids—which includes painkillers and heroin—are up 137 percent in the United States. That stark picture of a nation gripped by an epidemic wasn’t even the focus of the magazine’s piece. The article goes on to detail how a new study conducted by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM) reveals that number is likely much higher. 

The study, undertaken by Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that between 20-25 percent of the overdose death certificates did not have a specific drug documented. By looking at demographic and socioeconomic factors, he created a prediction equation to determine the likelihood that opioids were involved in the unspecified overdoses. Ruhm found that nationwide, the death rate from opioids is likely 24 percent higher than published estimates. Likewise, deaths related to heroin are 22 percent higher, according to his study.

Shocking data like this has led President Trump to create the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis to oversee the administration’s response to what he has called a national emergency. Congress shares the President’s concern and has taken several steps to address the opioid crisis. 

Last year, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) became law, expanding prevention, education, treatment and recovery efforts across the country. CARA was seen as a turning point in the efforts to stop the ravaging toll that opioids and heroin are inflicting on our communities. Members from both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly supported the sweeping new law because heroin and prescription drug abuse is an epidemic impacting Americans from all walks of life across the country. 

Congress’s commitment to addressing this scourge didn’t end when CARA became law. The Fiscal Year 2017 Omnibus spending bill included $1.1 billion in funding for prevention, treatment and enforcement programs.

There is more help in the pipeline as well. Before adjourning for the August in-state work period, the Senate unanimously passed legislation that aims to provide medical professionals with the most current data and treatment plans for patients who would previously have been treated with opioids. It will also allow past history of drug addiction to be included in patients’ medical records which will give doctors the ability to seek treatment therapies that do not threaten the recovery process for those who have struggled with addiction.

If this bill passes the House of Representatives and becomes law, it will help in efforts to prevent overprescription of opioids. However, changing prescription practices will not get the opioids out of our communities by itself. As the epidemic continually worsens, many bad actors see this as an opportunity to bolster their bottom line by supplying the black market with increasingly potent narcotics. Law enforcement and emergency room personnel are seeing more overdoses from counterfeit prescription painkillers that contain fentanyl, a drug which is almost twice as strong as heroin. The fentanyl found in our communities is being produced by Mexican drug cartels or purchased illegally off the “dark web” and shipped here from China. We must ensure that our federal law enforcement agencies are equipped to stop the flood of this very dangerous narcotic.   

Innovative, effective approaches are necessary to address the ever-evolving opioid crisis. One thing is certain—inaction is not an option. The damage this crisis is having on our communities will not end without a commitment from Washington. I will continue work with the President to combat the influx of illegal opioids and provide help to those suffering from drug dependence.