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Q&A: Opioid Public Health Crisis

December 22, 2017
Senator Chuck Grassley , Dysart Reporter

Q: Why is the opioid epidemic considered a public health crisis?

A: Perhaps this staggering fact best sums up the crisis: Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years of age. That's a startling strand of American society that is devastating families and overwhelming first responders, law enforcement, hospitals and government resources. More people in the last year used prescription painkillers 95 million Americans than tobacco, according to results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That may help explain why more than 11 million Americans in 2016 misused prescription opioids, according to the survey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 142 Americans die every day from a drug overdose. Many Iowans are familiar with the methamphetamine scourge that has torn families apart through addiction and criminal drug trafficking. But what is an opioid? Narcotics derived from opium are known as opiates (morphine, heroin and prescription medicine such as Vicodin, OxyCotin, Percocet) and their synthetic counterparts (such as methadone and fentanyl) are substances commonly used to treat pain. Collectively they are referred to as opioids. Both the natural and synthetic substances are highly addictive and increasingly lead to drug deaths. In fact, new data shows the largest ever recorded overdose drug deaths in the United States: More than 64,000 people were killed by drug overdoses in 2016, a 22 percent increase from 2015. Deaths involving fentanyl increased by 73% from 2014 to 2015, and more than doubled from 2015 to 2016. Law enforcement continues to find increased potency in the fentanyl being encountered on the street, making it all the more dangerous to the user.

These numbers underscore why President Trump in October directed his administration to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. It hits close to home for too many families. And looking ahead, there seems to be no end in sight with drug deaths continuing to climb in 2017. The prevalence of drug overdoses and drug deaths are devastating families and communities across the United States, including right here in Iowa. The Iowa Department of Public Health reports overdose deaths in Iowa claimed 309 lives in 2015. The health, social and economic consequences to society and our way of life reaches into families, the workplace and neighborhoods.

The surge in overdose-related deaths, from prescription drug abuse to highly potent synthetic opioids, calls for even more urgency to address this public health crisis. Since 2000 more than 300,000 Americans have died of an opioid overdose, according to federal statistics. While the facts are clear, the solutions are more challenging to identify and implement. The good news is that policymakers and stakeholders in the community, business and government are working to move these numbers in the other direction to save lives and restore hope to families.

Q: What solutions are being developed to address this public health crisis?

A: America needs all hands on deck to address this challenge. The administration has tasked federal agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration to make this crisis a priority. Work is underway to identify and support research and prevention, treatment, and recovery initiatives to end the misuse and addiction causing untold misery and death. I sponsored the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) that was signed into law in July 2016. On this bill I worked to secure continued support for community-based coalitions important to combat meth abuse in our local communities and to ensure funds for first responders in Rural America would be available to help save lives with supplies of Naloxone, an anti-overdose treatment. CARA also provides evidence-based prescription opioid and heroin treatment intervention programs. In December I conducted an oversight hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee to re-examine a 2016 federal law enacted to balance the medical needs of patients and the drug enforcement authority needed to help stop opioids from getting into the wrong hands. We need to make sure federal laws and law enforcement can keep up with criminal distribution and drug trafficking networks that push the poison into our communities. Better data sharing for prescription drug monitoring programs would help curb controlled substance diversion, help track patients shopping around for prescriptions and identify medical professionals with patterns of inappropriate prescribing. Health care providers, prescribers and pharmaceutical makers serve a critical role in prevention efforts, such as improving pain management treatment and overdose-reversal drugs. Law enforcement needs the right tools and resources to stop drug trafficking. To that end, I am sponsoring the Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act of 2017 to address the emerging fentanyl threat. SITSA provides law enforcement additional tools to react more nimbly to ever-changing synthetics. From my policymaking position in the U.S. Senate, I will continue my oversight and legislative work to help prevent and stop drug addiction that is shattering dreams and costing a generation of younger Americans their lives.



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