To combat the opioid crisis, we left the stigma and bias at the door

To combat the opioid crisis, we left the stigma and bias at the door
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We’re out of euphemisms at this point: national emergency, addiction crisis, drug epidemic. But there’s no mistaking that we’re in the midst of the biggest drug epidemic to ever hit our country — and the death toll is rising.

The federal government estimates that over 600,000 Americans have heroin-associated opioid use disorder. The wave of death we’ve already experienced is unprecedented. If nothing changes, losses over the next decade are expected to be on par with the Civil War — at over half a million Americans. Only more shocking than the toll itself is the scale of our collective inaction.

While translating science into practice tends to take at least ten years, literature on about how to treat opioid use disorder has existed for decades. Demonstrably effective methods to address a mortality crisis like ours have been shared from across the world.

What’s clear is we have to move beyond our slow and fragmented approach. Today, the Senate is expected to finally address this crisis in a bipartisan way, at a time when such achievements feel impossible.

If it passes and eventually moves to the President’s desk as it’s expected to, measures like the  Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention Act (STOP), which would crack down on drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil from being shipped from outside the U.S. and through the Postal Service, will become law. It will be a step in the right direction, but we need set our sights and get to work on the next level of comprehensive reform to more fully address how we treat opioid addiction.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, where overdose deaths have continued to rise, we looked at how break down the siloed ways the healthcare system treats addiction. We started by leaving stigma and bias at the door. While there still aren’t national training standards and requirements around addiction medicine in medical school, residency, and continuing education, we decided we could no longer treat people with these conditions the way healthcare has in the past.

We made a concerted effort to approach people with substance use disorders using the same methods we use when addressing patients with any other chronic, relapsing medical conditions: By standardizing compassionate care, coordinating with specialists, and ensuring rapid access to comprehensive, quality treatment programs.

Cincinnati’s coordinated approach has produced a significant drop in mortality. Not only did we increase Narcan supply throughout the community to ensure immediate access to addiction treatment, we integrated our hospitals into the continuum of addiction care in doing so. What followed was the development and implementation of novel clinical protocols across our community.

While we have made progress, there’s a long way to go to ensure these methods are universally embraced and provided the necessary support.

An often overlooked factor in creating the enormous gap in appropriately addressing the opioid crisis is that 17 states still haven’t expanded Medicaid. Medicaid covers nearly 4 in 10 non-elderly adults with opioid use disorder and the program supports critical access to comprehensive services, including essential, FDA-approved medications.

Medicaid expansion has clear financial and public health benefits, but expansion has been mired in partisan politics. With elections in November, voters concerned about addiction in America should educate themselves on candidates’ positions on healthcare access, particularly in non-Medicaid expansion states.

But government alone isn’t the answer. Business owners can play a major role in the recovery process once a patient has stabilized in treatment and is ready to get their life back. Individuals, faith-based organizations, and community groups can play a key role by becoming trained volunteers or learning to help others navigate the system. This moment could use your energy and compassion.

When the next generation asks what we did during this moment of national emergency and when our children are dealing with the ripple effects of this crisis, we honestly won’t have much in the way of excuses. The science was there. The ideas were shared. Why did we wait?

Navdeep Kang Psy.D is the Mercy Health Director of Operations for Behavioral Health Services in Cincinnati and a 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow.