Solving the opioid overdose crisis requires a bold approach to prevention and treatment
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Crises require action. Whether the crisis is a natural disaster or a disease epidemic, a successful government response addresses not only the immediate emergency, but also the measures needed to prevent or mitigate future crises. And, because lives are on the line, time is of the essence. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to America’s current public health crisis – a raging opioid overdose epidemic that claims more than 100 lives every day – our national response is falling short.

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As frontline providers for individuals with addiction involving opioid use, addiction medicine doctors understand both the acute need for immediate action and the systemic challenges that prevent too many individuals from accessing effective, life-saving medical care and social supports for their disease.

With countless lives on the line, the time is long past to answer the question: What does an effective response to the opioid overdose crisis look like?

First, as a society we must embrace science. Addiction is a chronic, multi-dimensional brain disease characterized by changes in the brain circuits related to reward, stress and self-control. And, like other chronic disease such as diabetes or asthma, addiction is treatable. Unfortunately, discrimination and stigma surrounding addiction persist – and prevent too many individuals in need from seeking evidence-based treatment.

Second, we can’t expect the current situation to change until we actively address addiction like the public health crisis that it is. Our country needs a new approach to the delivery of substance use prevention, addiction treatment, and recovery support services before the opioid overdose crisis destroys more lives and families.

In a notable display of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed sweeping opioid-related legislation that would help do just that: expand the addiction treatment workforce and improve provider education, improve patient care coordination and safety, help ensure the provision of evidence-based prevention and treatment services, and increase access to FDA-approved medications for the treatment of opioid use disorder.

With the U.S. Senate now poised to act, the American Society of Addiction Medicine – on behalf of thousands of addiction medicine physician specialists and other clinicians specializing the prevention and treatment of addiction across the country – is calling on our Senate leaders to prioritize and pass comprehensive legislation that includes key provisions of the House package that will help us teach, standardize, and cover evidence-based addiction medicine.

In 2016 alone, more than 42,000 Americans lost their lives to an opioid overdose. It’s difficult to imagine any other public health emergency killing that many people with such little aggressive action to stop it.

It’s past time for policymakers to respond to this crisis – swiftly, boldly and comprehensively – with prevention and treatment solutions that match the scale and scope of the deadliest opioid overdose crisis of our lifetimes.

Kelly Clark, MD, MBA, is president of  American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) based in Rockville, Md.