Opioids: Congress can stop eleven minute cycle of death

Nearly every 11 minutes, a person dies person from a drug overdose in the United States. That is 129 Americans every day; 79 of whom overdose on prescription medications or heroin. We are at a crisis point with regard to opioid misuse and overdose in this country and every single day that we fail to act on this epidemic, we are putting hundreds of lives on the line.

We have the opportunity right now to make historic change in this country and turn the tide of this national public health crisis. Several bills that would combat the opioid epidemic are currently before a select group of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress who are convening the first week of July to finalize the legislation. Great bi-partisan progress has been made to get to this point, but we must see it through to enactment.

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Now is the time for Congress to be strong, decisive and act with expediency to ensure that these bills are passed and that new funding is allocated for these measures to have a meaningful impact.

This crisis was caused by a number of factors. Since 1999, opioid prescriptions have dramatically increased.  At the same time, an outdated law arbitrarily limits how many patients can be treated by a single physician with buprenorphine — a medication proven to significantly reduce opioid cravings, illicit use and mortality.  

Moreover, current law restricts qualified nurse practitioners and physician assistants from providing medication assisted treatment. Couple these trends with an overall lack of funding for treatment, prevention and recovery programs, and it is not hard to imagine how the crisis has reached its current level.

Wide-ranging strategies that address the multiple causes and effects of opioid misuse and overdose must be simultaneously pursued if we want to achieve real progress. These include:

•         Improving access to treatment for those with opioid addiction, including medication assisted treatment. We must increase the number of patients a physician can treat with buprenorphine and give nurse practitioners and physician assistants the authority to prescribe it as well.

•         Expanding availability of naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, in health care settings and beyond.

•         Implementing enhanced prescription drug monitoring programs that track the dispensing and prescribing of controlled substances.

•         Raising the level of opioid prescriber education.

•         Enacting the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) as passed by the Senate and introduced in the House (S. 524/H.R. 953). CARA contains 11 distinct program components ranging from a national education campaign, financing treatment alternatives to incarceration, and funding for recovery schools and communities.

•         Providing emergency funding for a comprehensive response to address the opioid misuse and overdose epidemic.

There is overwhelming support for these policies from physicians, patients and lawmakers alike. And more than 30 organizations have joined together as the Coalition to Stop Opioid Overdose (www.StopOpioidOverdose.org) to ensure that legislation is passed and sent to the President.

It is time to put aside politics and come together as a country to achieve a meaningful solution to this public health crisis; we owe it to all Americans to do it right – and right now.

Mehmet Oz, MD is a cardiothoracic surgeon, author, and host of the TV series, "The Dr. Oz Show."