To recapture the progress made in combating the nation’s opioid crisis prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, policies and resources will need to be crafted in ways that address systemic inequities that have exacerbated challenges for specific populations, Acting Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Tom Coderre told Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit attendees on Wednesday evening.
Coderre is the first person in recovery to lead the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. He noted that before COVID, rates of prescription opioid misuse and heroin use were on the decline across the U.S. From 2016 to 2019, the number of individuals reporting prescription drug misuse in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health dropped from 1.8 million to 1.4 million. Over the same period, the number of reported heroin users decreased from 626,000 to 438,000. Meanwhile, the number of individuals engaged in medication-assisted treatment climbed from more than 912,000 in 2016 to 1.46 million in 2019.
“The data suggests that efforts to increase to access to medication-assisted treatment, psychosocial and community recovery supports have had a positive effect,” Coderre said.
The pandemic, however, derailed much of the headway that had been made. The more than 88,000 overdose deaths for the 12 months ending in August 2020 represented the greatest rate of increase of any type of injury death in the U.S., Coderre said.
SAMHSA is addressing behavioral health trends that have emerged as a result of the pandemic and has been given significant resources to help people with mental health and substance use disorders, Coderre said. Recently, for example, the administration released nearly $2.5 billion in supplemental funding for state block grants to address the mental illness and substance use crisis.
“This funding will help increase the availability of services for individuals and communities experiencing heightened emotional trauma and the exacerbation of existing mental illness and substance use issues, which have no doubt worsened during the pandemic,” Coderre said.
Coderre added that the pandemic’s impact has been acutely felt by Black and indigenous communities and people of color. COVID-19 has revealed stark disparities in access to care in these communities, specifically with regards to a lack of insurance, cultural/linguistically appropriate care, technology and transportation, along with negative public attitudes, he said.
Coderre said SAMHSA’s policies will focus on data disaggregation, flexibility in treatment policies and payments, navigators for federal stimulus opportunities, and expanded flexible coverage for telehealth.
“SAMHSA resources are designed to connect Americans—all Americans—to evidence-based resources every day,” Coderre said. “That will continue to be a crucial part of SAMHSA approach to helping the nation move forward.”