By Newt Gingrich
Much of the news cycle gets devoted to U.S. negotiations with North Korea, the trade fight with China, and securing the U.S. border, but there is a far more immediate threat to our country that puts American lives at risk everyday – addiction.
According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, drug overdoses claimed 70,200 lives in America in 2017. This number has doubled since 2007, when overdoses killed 36,010 in the United States.
For perspective, 58,220 Americans died during the entire Vietnam War. So, in one year, 11,980 more people died in America from drug overdose than in nearly a decade of conflict in Southeast Asia. Additionally, this staggering number of 2017 opioid deaths is nearly twice the 36,574 American casualties suffered during the three years of the Korean War.
Consider the amount of attention and activity the U.S. government and the nation at large paid to these two military conflicts compared to the efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, which is driving the overdose death toll in America.
To be sure, Congress and the Trump Administration have made progress in stemming the deadly tide.
The SUPPORT Act expanded Medicare coverage to 1,600 Opioid Treatment Programs across the country, allowed medical professionals to provide medication-assisted treatment to patients who are weening off opioid addiction, and cleared away impediments to science-based treatments.
Also, the First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law in December, will provide much needed options for people whose addictions drive them to commit crimes. For many, learning how to control their addiction will be the single most effective way to keep them alive and out of prison.
But there is much more that needs to be done. As former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, my friend and fellow Advocates for Opioid Recovery colleague, recently pointed out, we need a national strategy for dealing with addiction and mental illness.
On the latest episode of my podcast, Newt’s World, Kennedy said, “our country is suffering from a lack of insight as to how impactful these illnesses are and how little attention we give to actually addressing a better strategy for addressing these illnesses.”
At a national level, we must do even more to help people in prisons to recover from their addictions for the long term, including when they have served their time and are reintegrating into the population. The Food and Drug Administration also needs to get far more aggressive in rooting out pill mills and other bad actors in the pharmaceutical supply chain that create, support, and prescribe dangerous drugs. At the same time, the FDA needs to encourage more safe avenues for access to effective medication like methadone, buprenorphine, and others which can be used to help opioid-addicted patients recover.
After all, a 2015 study found that opioid addicted patients who only received psychological counseling for their addictions were twice as likely to die from overdose than those who received recovery medications.
Frankly, the federal government should look at cities which are making serious strides in this fight – and are creating models which could be used nationwide.
According to reporting by The Guardian, in 2017, Dayton, Ohio’s overdose deaths quadrupled from 2010 to 2017. The public health and safety institutions there simply could not keep up with the devastation.
The city then built a multi-layer program called Community Overdose Action Team, or COAT, which was solely focused at stopping overdose deaths. They opened needle exchanges – which helped officials make contact with thousands of opioid-addicted people in their community. Police started regularly carrying Narcan, an overdose reversal drug, and instead of arresting overdose victims, they offered “help not handcuffs” by connecting them with addiction treatment programs. At the same time, police aggressively sought out and prosecuted doctors who were filling illegal prescriptions for opioids and other addictive drugs.
Taken together, these efforts have been very successful in Dayton.
According to The Guardian, “The COAT program is credited with remarkable developments. In the first half of 2018, drug overdose deaths in Dayton’s Montgomery county fell 65 percent. Overdose emergency department visits dropped 73 percent, while police and emergency calls to deal with overdoses dropped two-thirds.”
Imagine how many lives and families we could save if we could reduce overdose deaths by 65 percent nationally.
Addiction is a dire nationwide crisis that’s killing 134 people a day – that’s one life every eight minutes. We must do more to fight it.