Recently, the Reports and Recommendations issued by the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis have stressed the urgent need for effective, bipartisan and far-reaching action – action at all levels of our government and action by the American people – if we are to reduce the staggering annual death toll from this disabling and all-too-often deadly disease.
All of us who care about our families, neighbors and the future of our country should give the Opioid Commission’s comprehensive analyses of how we must respond to this epidemic our most thoughtful consideration [whitehouse.gov/ondcp/presidents-commission].
We need only reflect on the harsh truth that at least 64,000 Americans perished from drug overdoses last year in this rapidly worsening national crisis—an increase of nearly 20% over the year before and a death toll higher than all U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq Wars combined.
Here in Maryland, nearly 2,100 people fatally overdosed in 2016, up 66 % from 2015. About a third of these deaths, 694, occurred here in Baltimore.
The opioid crisis is a national emergency that demands a national, non-partisan response, an emergency that is harming families in Baltimore and other communities in red states, blue states and every state in between.
Our Bipartisan Commitment to Save American Lives
This is why I was heartened that Republican Chairman Trey Gowdy saw the wisdom of bringing our House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital on Nov. 28 for a hearing that, hopefully, will encourage us to move forward in addressing this worsening crisis.
At the hearing, our committee’s understanding and bipartisan commitment were deepened by the testimony of the Opioid Commission’s Chair, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, along with that of Mr. Richard Baum, Acting Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; Baltimore City’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen; and Dr. Caleb Alexander of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The active participation by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and our Maryland congressional colleagues, Jamie Raskin, Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, emphasized our bipartisan determination to stem this crisis.
As a policy-maker who has been deeply engaged in our response to addiction for decades, I also understand that overcoming our opioid crisis will require that we all re-evaluate our thinking and re-focus our strategies upon evidence-based intervention of proven merit.
In a word, overcoming this national epidemic will be challenging. Nevertheless, the passion and commitment of the witnesses and my colleagues at our Johns Hopkins hearing last week reenergized my faith that we can achieve real progress toward meeting this challenge.
The underlying message of this hearing is that addiction to opioids arises from many different sources, including the overprescribing of opioid-based medications to people who are experiencing real pain.
The implications of this insight are clear: Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.
The stigma that we have attached to addiction can kill. We must respond to the opioid epidemic as a disease – not a moral failing – if we are to overcome this crisis.
Governor Christie and the other members of the President’s Commission on Drug Addiction have given us a blueprint for action with dozens of recommendations. Now, it’s up to all of us—Republicans and Democrats, federal, state, and local officials, researchers, policy makers, doctors, drug companies, health providers, insurance carriers, employers, and families of the faith community— to work together to end this epidemic.
Of the Opioid Commission’s many important recommendations, here are several of the actions that we can undertake now to prevent further addiction and save those who already have this disease.
First, the Commission’s report highlights the importance of equipping first responders with the overdose reversal drug, naloxone. However, drug companies have continued to hike the price of this 45-year-old drug, and communities like Baltimore have been forced to ration it.
We must assure that every single person who needs naloxone has access to this life-saving medicine at a price that they can afford.
Second, we must strengthen our cooperation with China and other nations if we are to address the growing threat of the highly potent and deadly synthetic opioids, fentanyl and carfentanil, that are entering our country from abroad.
Third, according to the Commission, “Today, only 10.6% of youth and adults who need treatment for [the disease of] substance use disorder receive that treatment.” There is simply no way we will end this crisis if 90% of those affected are not being treated for it.
We must assure that everyone who needs care has access to effective high-quality, evidence-based addiction treatment that works.
Fourth, Governor Christie, Dr. Wen and all of our witnesses were clear: to implement the Commission’s recommendations, additional federal funding will be required. We cannot fight this epidemic without funds equal to the challenge that we face.
The challenges presented by this epidemic are formidable, but so is our nation’s ability to respond.
If we work together more effectively, we have it within our power to save lives.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.