In Wednesday’s morning plenary session in the Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, three U.S. representatives expressed cautious optimism about the nation’s drug overdose death rate dropping by 4.6% in 2018—the first decline recorded in decades—but added that neither that development nor the COVID-19 crisis is a reason to throttle back now.
“The data shows we’re moving in right direction, but there’s a lot to be done,” said Rep. David Trone of Maryland. “Some people, including some of my colleagues in Congress, have a tendency to say, ‘Death rates are going down, so we can check the box. We’ve solved the crisis.’ That’s dangerous.”
For five years, Trone said he helped his nephew who suffered from addiction try “to navigate a confusing system to access treatment and recovery systems.”
“I witnessed firsthand how we are failing in most of these needs,” he said. “I came to Congress to do something about it.”
As U.S. representatives Earl “Buddy” Carter of Georgia and Tom Cole of Oklahoma outlined, federal legislators have been active in trying to turn that tide. Among the steps taken:
- Passing the 21st Century Cures Act and the SUPPORT Act
- Setting aside $5 billion over five years for the National Institutes of Health to research opioid alternative medications
- Earmarking funds in the most recent economic stimulus bill to maintain efforts to combat the opioid epidemic
“Congress literally year in and year out has put in an increasing amount of money in an extraordinary variety of ways trying to find a multiple-pronged approach to attacking this national problem,” Cole said. “You always wonder when you spend this much money: Is it having an effect? I think we got a glimpse last year that perhaps it is.
“For the first time in literally 20 years, the number of Americans who lost their lives to opioid overdose declined. Think about that. That’s bending the curve in a productive way. But obviously, the fight is not over. We’ll have to continue in the years ahead to devote additional resources to research, law enforcement and, most importantly, finding ways to help folks who have become addicted—usually through no fault of their own, usually by following a legitimate prescription given to them by a medical professional. We’ll have to do more to educate the medical community itself so that it doesn’t over-rely on opioids when it comes to dealing with pain.”
Carter, a perennial Rx Summit speaker, said much of Congress’s response to the opioid epidemic now is focused on the implementation of the SUPPORT Act, with efforts to improve oversight, create a public dashboard to track progress and better regulate quantities of opioids distributed to reduce diversion.
“Congress will continue to address the opioid crisis and support state and local efforts to combat it,” Carter told attendees. “But I thank you for your hard work to stop it as well. You’re the boots on the ground, and you’re making a significant difference.”