Destigmatizing Opioid Use Disorder: A Simple Step to Save Lives

In October 2017, then Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Eric Hargan, declared the current opioid crisis in our nation as “a public health emergency.” While this declaration has raised awareness on the devastating effects this crisis has caused, it unfortunately has not stopped the opioid drug epidemic from taking lives daily.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that on average 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose. This number continues to increase and overdose deaths are seen leading cause for the decline of life expectancy in the United States.

Prescribed opioids for pain management can often be the catalyst for use disorder. The Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ) estimates that as of 2017, 1.7 million people in the United States suffer from a substance use disorder related to prescription opioid and 652,000 suffer from a heroin use disorder, which are not mutually exclusive. A July 2019 National Institute of Drug Abuse study suggests “that misuse of prescription opioid pain relievers in high school could be linked to heroin use later in life.”

This disease knows no socioeconomic class, race, age, or gender boundary. This crisis touches nearly everyone in our country and will have lasting impacts on generations to come.

That it is why it is so important to include supports to end the opioid epidemic in our health care policy. Both Congress and the Administration are taking steps to do so.

HHS is leading the public health-based approach and has a five-point plan to combat the opioid crisis. This strategy includes greater access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services, expands research and public health surveillance, supports research on pain and addiction management, and promotes the use of overdose-reversing drugs. Since 2017, HHS has awarded over $2 billion in grants to fight the opioid crisis across the nation.

Congress is also working hard to tackle the opioid epidemic through the legislative process. In 2018, they passed the bipartisan Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act (SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act). This bill includes funding for training on addiction & pain in medical school and residency programs, gives permanent buprenorphine prescribing authorities to nurse practitioners and physician assistants, and provides grants for hospitals to develop protocols on discharging patients who have presented with an opioid overdose, among many other provisions. These efforts to develop opioid-related health care reform, coupled with previous legislation, are providing significant resources to those working in and struggling with opioid use disorder.

The Federal Government is taking positive steps to combat the opioid crisis. But it cannot end here. To further tackle the opioid crisis, we need as a community to a destigmatize opioid use disorder.

At the Ridge Policy Group, we are fortunate to work with the Independence Blue Cross (IBX) and the Independence Blue Cross Foundation. IBX and the Foundation have become nationally recognized for their efforts to stem the opioid crisis, spearheading coverage and implementation of “warm-handoff” protocols in Pennsylvania and providing insightful policy commentary at the federal level. To further raise awareness, the Foundation, in partnership with the Justice Center for Research at Penn State University, created Someone You Know, a multi-media public awareness campaign to share real stories of addiction and recovery. Through print, video, and community events they share ambassadors’ stories in hopes to reduce the shame often associated with opioid abuse.

We were pleased to partner with the Foundation to bring their Someone You Know campaign to Capitol Hill last month to highlight the need to reduce the stigma of addiction. Their ambassadors shared their personal stories of addiction, recovery, and even the loss of loved ones due to opioid use disorder. Many Members of Pennsylvania delegation attended the event and were able to see the hard work the Foundation and their ambassadors are doing to destigmatize opioid use disorder.

IBX and the Foundation are not alone in wanting to reduce the stigma of addiction. U.S Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), released the report Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Spotlight on Opioids, a resource to provide practical information and guidance for those working to end the opioid epidemic. Mr. Adams calls on Americans to change their perspective on the opioid crisis and addiction. This simple step of changing the way we view and speak of opioid use disorder can save lives in and be a catalyst to end this epidemic.

Over the last decade, our country has seen the rise of a disease that has taken millions of lives. We as a country need to do more to combat this crisis, we need to change how we view and speak of addiction. We need to remember this affects us all, and we all have a part to play to end this epidemic.

This article was written for Ridge Policy Group by associate Becky Corby. Becky helps manage a majority of our federal health care clients.

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Ridge Policy Group

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