Opioid overdoses killed more Americans than breast cancer last year. But as the nation debates the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, we must confront this fundamental question — what will happen if millions with an addiction or another mental health condition lose healthcare coverage or are unable to afford life-saving treatment?
People in recovery and those who love them understand the need to raise our voices, and work to break the stigma of addiction. It’s because of that stigma our friends, neighbors and family will continue to die.
That is unforgivable because these deaths are preventable. When it comes to treating opioid addiction and overdose, we know what works and we have the tools, but we need to get them into people's’ hands.
We have to start seeing addiction for what it is: a disease like diabetes, cancer, or any other health condition. We would never deny someone with diabetes his insulin, or someone with asthma her inhaler. Why is our attitude so different when the disease is related to substance use?
Our way forward is clear. We must break down the many barriers that exist in our healthcare system and do a better job of bringing effective treatment to those in need. Every American should be familiar with naloxone, which reverses the effects of overdoses and keeps people alive. There should be no shame in using buprenorphine, which safely curbs the cravings for opioids and along with talk therapy offers a clear path to long-term recovery.
This week, New York City launched Healing NYC, a comprehensive effort to reduce opioid overdose deaths by 35 percent over the next five years. The plan includes efforts to educate New Yorkers on the dangers of opioids, distribute 100,000 naloxone kits in high-need neighborhoods, move 20,000 people into addiction treatment involving therapy and buprenorphine, and work with the NYPD to step up drug enforcement efforts.
But cities can’t do it alone. The Affordable Care Act represented a huge step forward. It helped millions of Americans receive treatment for a substance use disorder. Under the ACA, insurance companies must cover addiction as an “essential” benefit. That means addiction treatment is covered just like a physical therapy appointment or an antibiotic.
From what we know about the plans President Trump and the Republican-led Congress have for replacing ObamaCare, they will be devastating for so many Americans who struggle with addiction. Our jails and prisons will fill up with even more people battling the disease of addiction, and more Americans will die from overdoses. We need action. Our leaders in Washington need to step up and save lives.
Whatever Congress does to replace ObamaCare, we urge them to include funding for opioid treatment on a national scale, using the gold-standard protocol of medication assistance plus talk therapy. Congress must also force health insurers to cover addiction treatment the exact same way they cover any other disease.
This isn’t a red state or blue state issue. It’s a family issue, and any family can fall victim to opioid addiction. That means we all have a stake in shattering the stigma and providing every American with access to treatment.
Chirlane McCray is the First Lady of New York City, a writer, and a passionate advocate for the underserved. Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) is author of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act and a person in a long-term recovery from an opioid addiction.
The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.