In the midst of a national epidemic of opioid abuse, our healthcare policymakers are trying to figure out how best to combat this intractable problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids, (which include the prescription painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and others) and the illegal drug heroin were involved in 28,647 overdose deaths in 2014. Drug overdose deaths are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, even surpassing car crashes.
A certain laxness in prescribing addictive opioids for legitimate purposes has helped to fuel the current crisis. In 2013, almost 2 million Americans, age 12 or older, either abused or were dependent on opioid pain relievers. Once addicted, it’s incredibly difficult to stop using the drug.
This overprescribing of opioids and resulting increase in addiction, has in turn led to a resurgence in the use and abuse of heroin, which is cheaper and easier to find than prescription opioids.
The policy challenge is this: to ensure that prescribers are not creating a new population of addicts who–when they are unable to refill a prescription–turn to street drugs such as heroin to address the craving created by opioids. At the same time, we also need to ensure that people who are in pain get the relief they need. Balancing these two concerns represents a tough challenge.
The National Consumers League (NCL), which has long been concerned with the safe use of medications, welcomes the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement this month of a series of actions designed to combat the opioid abuse epidemic. Among other initiatives, the FDA will:
- convene an Advisory Committee before approving certain new opioids
- expand access to abuse-deterrent formulations to discourage abuse (like not allowing drugs to be ground into powder and combined with liquid to be made into possible injectables)
- strengthen post-marketing study requirements
- increase access to pain management training for healthcare professionals
- work to protect appropriate patient access to needed pain medications.
The FDA’s efforts are part of a larger governmental strategy to address this growing problem. On February 2, the Obama Administration announced that it would ask Congress to spend an additional $1.1 billion next year to expand access to treatment, support programs to prevent prescription drug overdoses, and crack down on illegal sales. For its part, the CDC is currently working on new guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain.
We hope that these new initiatives will help lessen the burden of opioid abuse, and we welcome the development of better pain management options and alternative treatments for patients.
If you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, help is available 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).