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Opioid Epidemic 'Getting Worse Instead of Better,' Public Health Officials Warn

WASHINGTON – A top public health official warned Thursday the nation’s opioid epidemic is showing no signs of abating.

“It is one of the few public health problems that is getting worse instead of better,” said Dr. Debra Houry, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Houry and public health officials testifying at a Senate hearing described an addiction crisis that has spiraled so out of control that it is far beyond the scope of any particular agency to address.

“We need all hands on deck,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Officials from four federal health agencies delivered their dire assessment of the opioid epidemic during the first in a series of hearings before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"Tearing our communities apart"

“The opioid crisis is tearing our communities apart, tearing families apart, and posing an enormous challenge to health providers and law enforcement officials,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

In his home state, there were more than 7.6 million opioid prescriptions for pain in 2016, or roughly 1,148 prescriptions for every thousand residents, Alexander said, citing statistics from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Last year, 1,631 Tennesseans died of a drug overdose, the highest rate in the state’s history.

More than 11 million Americans misused prescription opioids in 2016, nearly 1 million used heroin, and 2.1 million had an opioid use disorder due to prescription opioids or heroin, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

More alarming, officials said, is the continued increase in overdose deaths, especially those involving illicitly made fentanyl and other highly potent synthetic opioids.

More than 300,000 Americans have died of an opioid overdose since 2000, officials said. Preliminary data shows at least 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, the highest number ever recorded in the United States in a single year.At Thursday’s hearing, public health officials said federal agencies have undertaken a number of steps to help deal with the problem. They include new programs that strive to improve access to treatment, mobilize resources to increase the availability and quality of long-term recovery, and target high-risk individuals such as pregnant women and jail and prison inmates.

Last month, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded nearly $46 million in grants to programs in 22 states to provide resources to first responders and those who work directly with people who are the highest risks.

Officials stress more needs to be done

“And yet we seem not to be making the kind of progress we need to make,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Public health officials stressed that more needs to be done, particularly in the areas of prevention and the over-prescription of opioids.

Most people become addicted to opioids after receiving the drugs for a medical condition, said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. In response, the agency has taken steps in recent months to better educate medical providers on the risks and the benefits of prescribing opioids, he said.

Dr. Collins of the National Institutes of Health aid more emphasis must be placed on alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, which might be effective in treating pain and would keep people from getting addicted to drugs.

Democrats on the committee charged that President Trump’s administration has delayed critical steps that could provide relief to families suffering from opioid addiction, even as Congress has authorized nearly $1 billion for states to address the crisis.

The administration has proposed slashing the budget for substance abuse and mental health programs, allowed the Justice Department to treat addiction as a criminal justice issue and attempted to end the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, which would eliminate insurance coverage for millions of Americans with substance abuse disorders, said the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

“We should be doing everything we can to tackle this crisis and push for actual results,” Murray said. “And critical to all that is this administration’s being a partner — and not a hindrance to our efforts.”

Next month the committee will hear from state officials about what they are doing and what resources they need to combat opioid addiction.

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