Ending the opioid crisis: What Warren's plan needs to truly win the war on addiction

Ending the opioid crisis: What Warren's plan needs to truly win the war on addiction
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The fact that the opioid crisis is becoming a hot-button political issue is no surprise. Considering 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose — that’s one every 11 minutes — the situation simply cannot be ignored. In fact, Americans are now more likely to die from an overdose than they are in a car accident, and the effects of this crisis have put a tremendous strain on our first responders and emergency services. Not to mention, the epidemic of addiction takes a devastating toll on families, especially children, and communities around the country.

Frustrated by the lack of real solutions, constituents are demanding their elected officials do something to help stop, or at least slow, the rate of addiction and death. 

Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' Trump says administration will 'take a look' after Thiel raises concerns about Google, China Thiel calls Warren the most 'dangerous' Democratic candidate MORE has taken a bold step with her CARE Act proposal that would provide $100 billion over the next ten years to ramp up access to treatment through a broad range of organizations, local governments, and both public and nonprofit entities.

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While her plan certainly has a realistic budget and timeline, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to devising real, lasting solutions to solving this crisis.

Throwing more money at the problem won’t work if we’re not investing it in the right kind of long-term solutions.

To get it right, here’s how we need to concentrate our efforts and funding:

Make mental health treatment a primary component. Comparing the addiction crisis to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s is a mistake. Addiction is not a communicable disease; it’s a disease of the brain. In many cases, opioid use is a symptom of the larger mental health issue, and we must address the root cause in order to treat the symptoms. Here’s where genetic testing to determine individual predisposition and inform treatment modalities gives us a start toward personalized medicine. We dramatically improve outcomes when we stop treating people with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Expand beyond medicated assisted treatment (MAT). Methadone, Narcan (naloxone), and Suboxone (buprenorphine) are vital for saving lives, but these are decades-old medicines that were primarily intended for public safety. They do not treat the problem, and in fact, they can fuel alternative addictions. Such medications play right into the hands of pharmaceutical companies who aim to profit by treating a problem that they helped create. In addition to emergency interventions, we must take a more holistic approach to mental health and addiction treatment, including diet and exercise, spirituality, and other modalities that address the whole person. By teaching patients strategies and coping mechanisms for co-occurring conditions such as depression, we can empower them to take control of their own health.

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Use technology to expand access to mental health care. There is a massive shortage in access to mental health care: 77 percent of U.S. counties have a severe shortage of psychiatric and mental health care facilities and 55 percent of counties lack mental health services. Many of these are rural areas where resources are thin, which also happen to be some of the hardest hit by the opioid crisis. Telemedicine can make a huge impact on solving this problem, by providing rural populations with access to the care they need through remote providers. The problem: Health plans aren’t willing to pay for it, and without payment, providers don’t have the resources to offer it. We have the technology to solve this problem — we just need the financial incentives and support. 

Tap the right sources for funding. In 2016, drug makers pumped enough painkillers into American communities to supply every single adult with 30 mg of hydrocodone for nearly a month. Big pharma not only contributed to the problem, but actually profited from the addiction and deaths of thousands of Americans. Meanwhile, insurers have failed to offer adequate coverage for in-patient mental health care and reasonable provider reimbursement for mental health services. Instead of taxing “the rich” — those creating jobs and fueling the economy — to solve the opioid problem, we should be dipping into the deep pockets of the companies that caused it.

Bring research and academia to the table. Treating and curing the disease of addiction requires a research-based approach. In order to make sustainable progress, we must understand the root causes and the regions of the brain impacted, and then develop treatment programs designed to address the core disease state. There is outstanding research going on at universities across the country, targeting addiction at its source. Let’s get them the financial support they deserve to get the job done.

I respect Warren’s courage in taking the lead, her aggressive stance, and that she’s long been a champion of improving healthcare and access to mental health resources. I think her approach is headed in the right direction with the volume of resources and time it will take to truly make a difference in the fight against addiction.

However, I also believe we should spend much less money on emergency measures and devote more toward addressing the root of the problem.

It’s time we innovate to develop better solutions, rather than throwing more money toward temporary fixes.

Michael Cartwright is the CEO of American Addiction Centers, a leading provider of substance use treatment services in the U.S. Cartwright and American Addiction Centers would receive no financial gain and/or benefit from the passing of the CARE Act proposed by Elizabeth Warren.